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Skin Care and Diseases

Insect Bites Are Not to Be Taken Lightly

Chigger, flea, tick and mosquito bites are not merely an irritating nuisance-they can be dangerous and July, August and September are prime time for these critters to feed on humans. Scratching that annoying itch, creates a sore that can become infected.

Chiggers

The tiny red bugs called chigger mites are actually baby harvester mites, which are small enough to enter the skin through pores or hair follicles.

Once inside, they are able to burrow into the skin with their piercing mouth tube. Then, they inject their saliva to digest skin cells and suck out the liquefied skin.

The intense itching comes from your own allergic reaction to the protein found in the chigger mite's saliva.

Chiggers crawl onto you quickly when you sit or walk on grass. Attracted by warmth, they are frequently found where clothing fits tightly, such as under socks, waistbands or cuffs.

They usually wander around your body for 45 minutes or more before finding a suitable place to make their entrance. So following up outdoor activities with an immediate bath or hot shower can avoid the problem.

The six-legged larvae (baby chiggers) are the ones that want you as a food source. Once they mature into eight-legged adults, chiggers feed on grass and green leaves.

If your pet walks in infested grass there's a good chance it will pick up these little hitchhikers (or fleas or ticks) on its fur. Then, when you stroke or cuddle with your pet, they can transfer to you."

Red, itchy chigger welts are frequently found under the armpits, in the back of the knees, in front of the elbow or in the groin, where tender skin is easy to penetrate.

Fleas

Fleas can be dangerous, too. It was fleas that carried bubonic plague from rats to humans in Europe in the Middle Ages.

The disease-causing microbes for the plague are carried in the flea's salivary gland. When a flea bites, it injects anticoagulants to keep the blood thin and flowing.

If a flea bites an infected rat or squirrel before biting you, its saliva transmits the disease-bearing virus or bacteria to you.

Fleas can easily invade your house via small mammals. Once inside, they can be difficult to exterminate. It's important to pest-proof your pets and keep all wild creatures from taking refuge in your attic, garage or other parts of your house.

Ticks

Dog ticks and deer ticks can transmit the bacteria that cause Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Lyme disease. You should inspect your dog or cat regularly for ticks and use flea and tick-repellant protection products as advised by your vet.

Symptoms of Rocky Mountain spotted fever include fever, headache, a spotted rash on wrists ankles, palms and soles and a patchy rash on arms and legs. Muscle aches, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain are also common with this bacterial disease. It is treated by with antibiotics. Despite its name, Rocky Mountain spotted fever has been found in all 48 contiguous states. It is fatal in 10 percent of the cases reported.

Lyme disease typically starts as a circular red rash around the site of the tick bite. It can be treated with antibiotics, but left untreated, infection can spread to joints, the heart and the nervous system.

Inspect yourself and children after each outdoor activity. Remove attached ticks with a tweezers by grasping the tick near the head and mouth and, being careful not to squeeze it, lift it gently off the skin.

Place the tick in a plastic bag and keep it in the freezer for up to two weeks. If no symptoms of Rocky Mountain spotted fever or Lyme disease appear, dispose of the tick by flushing it down the toilet or burning it. After removing a tick, take care to wash your hands and apply triple antibiotic to the site of the bite.

Mosquitoes

For years, mosquitoes have been known to carry tropical diseases such as malaria, dengue and yellow fever. Now, West Nile fever is becoming a problem. First identified in 1937, the viral West Nile fever been in the news since a 1999 outbreak in humans and animals in New York. Since then, it has been reported in 46 states.

Although there is no specific treatment for West Nile fever other than supportive therapy, less than 1 percent of those infected develop its most serious possible consequence, encephalitis (inflammation of the brain).

To prevent these common bug bites:

If you suffer severe allergic reactions or have multiple bites, see your doctor, who can prescribe topical cortisone treatments, oral antihistamines or prednisone shots to lessen the itching.

Resist the urge to scratch and use lukewarm water soaks and topical or oral Benadryl to reduce the itching and swelling.

If you or your children do scratch and break the surface of the skin, apply triple antibiotic on the sore and cover it with a bandage until it heals to prevent secondary infections.

Staying in air-conditioning also helps to reduce itching.

And remember, prevention is more important than treatment.

This article originally appeared in UC Health Line (8/8/06), a service of the University of Cincinnati Academic Health Center Public Relations Department and was adapted for use on NetWellness with permission, 2006.

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Last Reviewed: Aug 23, 2006

Charles L Heaton, MD
Professor
College of Medicine
University of Cincinnati