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West Nile virus and 10 other diseases from insect bites we should worry about

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
11 diseases from insect bites and first aid for bug bites.

A recent report in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) highlights 11 diseases you can get from insect bites and stings. West Nile disease is just one concern making headlines. It is also important to know what first aid is needed when a bug bites or stings.

The effect of insect bites can range from painful to severe, causing tissue loss that requires medical intervention.

None of us are immune to bug bites because insects are everywhere. Some bug bites can set off an allergic reaction that can be life-threatening.

Insects also carry disease in their venom, saliva, blood and on their bodies; making it important to know what disease you might be susceptible to if you do get a bug bite.

11 diseases from insects

Experts highlight the following 11 most important illnesses that can potentially lead to death that we can get from insect bites that include:

From mosquitoes:

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From tick bites:

  • Rocky Mountain spotted fever
  • Lyme disease

Fleas and flies also spread disease

  • Chagas disease from ‘kissing bugs’
  • Plague from insects such as fleas from rodents
  • River blindness or Onchocerciasis transmitted from the blackfly
  • Leishmaniasis from sandfly bites

How to avoid insect bites

Expert recommendations to help stop insects from biting include:

  • Wear a protectant containing DEET, which should be washed off after use. Whenever possible including boots to cover your skin when outdoors.
  • Drain sources of standing water including bird baths, gutters, kid’s pools, open trash cans, flower pots, old tires and anything else that cause water to ‘pond’ where mosquitoes breed.
  • Keep the inside of your home clean to discourage flying and crawling insects and rodents.
  • Check your surroundings so you can avoid ant-hills, beehives and wasps nests and other infested areas.

First aid for bug bites

  • Multiple bee stings, especially around the mouth and throat can cause swelling of the airway, making it difficult to breathe. Call 911 for emergency help if bee stings cause shortness of breath or throat swelling.
  • Clean the area with soap and water and remove any part of the bee’s stinger left in the skin.
  • Remove ticks with tweezers. Pull gently upwards (toward the insect’s head), being careful not to leave any part of the tick embedded. If you have difficulty, go to a local health care facility to have the tick removed. Continue to observe the bug bite area for signs of infection including redness, swelling or drainage. Seek medical attention for fever, aches, rash or other symptoms.
  • Applying ice to an insect bite relieves pain and itching. If there are no health contraindications, take acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain and used as directed.
  • If you are not certain if an insect if venomous, call your local poison control center for guidance.

West Nile virus that comes from mosquito bites can be avoided by covering up, wearing insect repellant and ensuring there is no standing water near your home. If you have open windows or doors make sure the screens are intact and in good repair. You can also consider using netting when appropriate.

West Nile disease is especially dangerous for anyone with weakened immunity and for the elderly. It can lead to encephalitis that attacks the brain. But mosquitoes aren’t the only insects that carry disease and can lead to illness. Ticks, ‘kissing bugs’, fleas and flies can also cause illness, making it important to know how to treat insect and bug bites and which ones are most important to avoid.

"Insect Bites and Stings"
Janet M. Torpy, MD
JAMA. 2013;310(1):110. doi:10.1001/2012.jama.10800.

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