Healthy Aging

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The Problem with Pests

This summer, as at all times, you know that pests are well… pests.  Because it is summer and we humans like to take advantage of being outside when the heat permits, it is a time for us to encounter insects and ticks.  These are what I call pests since they can ruin an otherwise well planned outing, whether it be a walk around the yard or a trek through a particularly enchanting field or woods.  Everywhere we go we are likely to encounter insects and or ticks – especially in our part of the country. 

Insects come in a variety of forms. The scientific classes we have to deal with most are Hymenoptera (ants, bees, wasps), and Diptera (gnats and flies).  Because we also may encounter ticks they are included though not classified as insects, but they certainly are a common pest. 

What They Can Do to Us 

Insects bite and sting and can in some cases inflict major pain and serious diseases.  Usually, they just bite or sting and if we are quick enough we get the satisfaction of killing the attacker.  The bite or sting of an insect causes us discomfort when venom is injected at the site.  This foreign protein is designed as a defense weapon for the insect, but we certainly consider it offensive.  The material usually causes a local reaction that our own immune system sets into play to cause redness and itching.  In some uncommon cases the protein can cause an allergic reaction that in even fewer individuals can be life threatening requiring immediate medical attention. 

Mosquitoes can carry particularly dangerous pathogens, but in our part of the country and world we usually are not likely to get yellow fever or malaria, although this is still a problem in some parts of the world.  Encephalitis can occur and West Nile virus is a possible illness from infected mosquitoes.  Encephalitis is very rare and symptoms are headache, high fever, chills and vomiting.  West Nile virus also affects the brain and has symptoms similar to encephalitis but may be more severe and result in coma.  If any of these symptoms occur one should see a physician promptly, but these illnesses are extremely rare in our part of the country. 

Ticks are another major disease purveyor, and ticks are common as are their bites in our part of the country.  Fortunately, most tick bites are like those of an insect and result in local inflammation, some soreness, but do not mean that we have contracted some of the diseases such as Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Ehrlichiosis or several other bad infections.  The most important thing to remember after a tick bite is to monitor yourself very carefully for a month.  Look for a rash, fever, headache, joint or muscle pain and or swollen lymph nodes.  If any of these occur go visit a physician.


Most stings from gnats, mosquitoes, and flies do not require treatment, but it is important not to scratch the itch that results from the bite or sting.  Scratching can lead to infection from bacteria on our own skin or in the area. 

Some bites and stings do require treatment.  Fire ants that are the bane of our existence if we provoke them cause severe pain, inflammation and ultimately pustules.  The best treatment for this is listed on the right.  The treatment for fire ants can be used for other stings or bites as well. 

Treatment for some of the diseases caused by mosquitoes and ticks requires a physician to make the diagnosis that can be missed if you do not tell him or her that you have been bitten by one of the bad actors.  If a tick is involved, carefully remove the tick with the head intact with tweezers and keep it for later identification if symptoms do develop.  Most tick diseases are treated effectively with prescription antibiotics.  The diseases are rare and a tick bite does not generally require a doctor visit unless the symptoms (a rash, fever, headache, joint or muscle pain and or swollen lymph nodes) occur.

The Bottom Line

Pests are generally a nuisance and not a reason to miss out on the fun of a picnic, walk in the woods or any other outside activity.  Wear light colored protective clothing and bug spray of some sort.  Insects and ticks can rarely cause important diseases and to stay healthy you need to observe all your bites and stings.  Get medical help immediately if it is warranted – usually you just put up with the pests and forget about them.  Enjoy your July 4th picnic!

Healthy Aging newsletter pests

Health Information Library: Fleas, Mites & Chiggers

Health Information Library: Ticks and Lyme Disease

Podcast: Bug Bites - Symptoms and When to See the Doctor

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First Aid for Fire Ant Stings

  1. Move rapidly away from the nest
  2. Quickly remove or kill ants on skin and clothing – to prevent further stings
  3. Wash the area gently with soap and water to rid the skin of any venom on it
  4. Disinfect bite with alcohol
  5. Place cool cloth or ice cloth on sites for 15 minutes
  6. Try dabbing the site with one of the following: diluted (1:1) bleach solution, Calamine Lotion, Enzyme cleaner or meat tenderizer
  7. Consider spraying topical (cortisone) or systemic (oral) antihistamine (e.g. benadryl) 
  8. Do not scratch the pustule because this can lead to infection  

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