Spring Itch: What You Need to Know About Bug Bites

I only stood outside the tent for 10 minutes, tending the stove. I didn’t know the tiny bugs swarming my face were biting me until I dove into the tent.

“What happened to your neck?” Paul asked.

“Wow, you got munched,” added Toby.

Protective clothing can be an effective way to protect youself from bugs without chemicals.
Protective clothing can be an effective way to protect youself from bugs without chemicals.

With no mirror in our heavy backpacks I had no idea what they were talking about. But two days later, after we emerged from the Vancouver Island backcountry, I almost didn’t recognize myself. Small welts and bumps covered my face and neck like some kind of rash. Those tiny bugs had feasted on my exposed skin.

Biting bugs are part of being outdoors in British Columbia, particularly in the spring and early summer. Their bites are often itchy, occasionally painful and always annoying, but rarely more than an inconvenience. However, there are a few, rare exceptions to know about, says Dr. Eleni Galanis, an epidemiologist with the BC Centre for Disease Control.

“People should be aware that contracting a disease from a mosquito or tick bite is possible,” says Gelanis. “Thankfully the risk is lower in BC than most other places in North America.” Ticks, mosquitoes and other bugs bite because they’re hungry. As they remove a chunk of flesh or stab a straw through your skin to suck up blood they also release saliva. The foreign saliva triggers an immune response, which kicks in the desire to itch, a signal to your body to come deal with the foreign substance.

Scratching that itch is the worst thing to do. Dirty nails and hands often introduce more bacteria, making the itch worse and potentially causing an infection. Instead rub hand sanitizer on the area. It might sting a bit at first, but usually cleaning the bite helps calm down your body’s reaction. Antihistamines and other treatments also work.

For most bug bites that’s the end of the story. But ticks and some mosquitoes can pass diseases on to humans. West Nile virus and Lyme disease are the most common. While incidence are increasing for both in many parts of North America, in BC they remain small, says Gelanis. “The number of cases are rare in part because of our climate there are fewer ticks and mosquitoes and also because the ones we do have carry less disease,” she says.

The only mosquito disease in BC is West Nile virus. Most people infected with it will show no symptoms. About 19 percent will feel like they have a flu. Less than one percent of cases result in hospitalization. Somewhere between zero and two British Columbians contract West Nile every summer and most cases occur in the Okanagan and Kootenay regions.

Tick bites are more likely to lead to have health impacts. Ticks look like little eight-legged beetles. They hang out along brushy trails waiting to drop on warm blooded hosts. Once aboard they dig their heads into the skin and start feeding on blood. If they’re found and removed within 24 hours the chances of them passing on a disease are low.

If they’ve been on for longer and the bite happened in southern BC there’s a chance the tick passed on Rocky Mountain spotted fever or more likely Lyme disease. Lyme disease is the most common bug borne illness in BC with up to 40 cases diagnosed every year.

However, “the incidence is actually much higher,” says Gelanis. “We estimate one in nine cases aren’t reported.”

For both diseases Gelanis recommends keeping an eye on the bite site for signs of a rash or bull’s eye. Another indication is flu-like symptoms. In both cases a round of antibiotics usually deals with it. If Lyme disease goes untreated it can lead to a wide range of serious health impacts including cardiac problems and paralysis.

“It’s worth knowing the symptoms, but these diseases are so rare it’s not worth not going outside because you’re worried about getting sick,”Gelanis says.

I agree. In the Mackenzie lowlands of the Northwest Territories the giant mosquitoes harassed our party so badly we stopped taking breaks. On a sunny day in the alpine above the Turner Lake Chain I prayed for rain, because it would bring a few minutes of bug-free bliss. And there was that spring trip on Vancouver Island when the bugs gave me a makeover. Yet, these trips are some of the most memorable I’ve done. I never want bugs to be the reason I didn’t go.

Instead, Gelanis recommends two helpings of prevention (see sidebar). Personally, I don’t go anywhere without an insect repellant containing DEET. It’s definitely toxic stuff, but when it comes to keeping bugs away it’s the only thing I’ve found that works.

Ticks

What are they? A small, beetle-like bug with eight legs that digs into animals to feed on blood.

Where are they found? Ticks that carry human pathogens are found in the lower elevation and milder areas of BC including Vancouver Island, the Lower Mainland and the southern Interior.

Hazard If a tick isn’t removed soon after it bites it can cause paralysis or pass on pathogens like Lyme disease or Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Both can lead to flu-like symptoms, and without treatment, a range of more serious health problems.

Prevention Wear light-coloured clothing, long shirts and pants, and apply a DEET or Icaridin containing insect repellant. After hiking, take off clothing and look all over your body for ticks.

West Nile Virus

What A rare mosquito-born illness.

Where Mosquitoes are most active at dawn and dusk. Incidents are more common in warmer areas like the Okanagan and Kootenay areas.

Hazard Only 20 percent of those infected experience mild, flu like symptoms. Rare, severe cases can lead to hospitalization and even death.

Prevention Wear light-coloured clothing, long shirts and pants, and apply a DEET or Icaridin containing insect repellant. Eliminate standing water around your home and neighbourhood to reduce insect breeding locations.

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