Summer is a time for enjoying warm weather, but spending time outside also increases the risk of contracting serious conditions like Lyme disease, poison ivy rashes, West Nile virus and allergic reactions to bee stings.
That’s why it’s important to take precautions to protect your health, said David Rosenstreich, M.D., director of the Allergy and Immunology Division at Montefiore Medical Center. “During summer we see an influx of patients with all sorts of medical conditions that could have been avoided with simple steps,” he said.
Lyme disease is caused by bites from very small blacklegged ticks that are infected with the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. More than 90 percent of cases are confined to just 10 states, with the highest incidences reported in New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Rhode Island, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Delaware.
The risk of Lyme disease increases with exposure to wooded, brushy, or overgrown grassy areas where ticks thrive. Children between the ages of 5 and 9 and adults 45-54 years of age are most affected. The best way to deter ticks is to wear long pants and long sleeves, use insect repellent and remove ticks promptly.
Typical symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue and a telltale bulls-eye skin rash. Most cases of Lyme disease can be treated successfully with a few weeks of antibiotics, but without treatment the infection can spread to joints, the heart and the nervous system, leading to severe joint pain and swelling. Up to five percent of untreated patients develop chronic neurological complaints – shooting pains, numbness in hands or feet and short-term memory problems — months to years after infection.
West Nile Virus
West Nile virus is spread by infected mosquitos and can be deadly for both humans and animals. Last year, more than 5,600 cases – including 286 deaths — were reported across the nation.
Mosquitoes become infected when they feed on infected birds. Most mosquitoes are active at dusk and dawn so use insect repellent and wear long sleeves and pants during peak hours. When indoors, make sure windows and doors have screens, and get rid of mosquito breeding sites by emptying standing water from flower pots, buckets, pet dishes and children’s wading pools.
Approximately 80 percent of people infected with WNV do not have symptoms, and they improve without treatment. The remaining 20 percent may experience fever, headache and body aches, nausea, vomiting and sometimes swollen lymph glands or a skin rash on the chest, stomach and back. Symptoms can last for a few days to several weeks. About one in 150 people infected with WNV will develop severe illness and usually require hospitalization.
Anyone stung by a bee, wasp or hornet should wash the site with soap and water and try to remove the stinger. People who have had severe allergic reactions to insect bites or stings should consider carrying an epinephrine auto injector (EpiPen). Some people who are allergic can receive a series of allergy desensitization injections to prevent severe reactions in advance of any sting..
“People should avoid looking or smelling like a flower,” said Dr. Rosenstreich. “Do not wear brightly colored clothing or flowery prints and avoid wearing perfumes or other scents that may attract stinging insects.” It is also important, if possible, to wear pants, long-sleeved shirts, close-toed shoes and socks when working outdoors. In addition, check food and drinks, particularly open cans of soda, since yellow-jackets and other stinging insects are attracted to sugar.
Poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac are poisonous plants common in most states. They are found in forests, fields, wetlands and along streams, road sides and even in urban environments such as parks and backyards. The leaves of these plants release an oil that triggers an allergic skin reaction – usually an itchy red rash with bumps or blisters. Over-the-counter topical medications relieve symptoms for most people, but immediate medical attention may be required for severe reactions. These individuals most often require treatment with oral corticosteroids.
“Nothing can take the fun out of a summer day faster than a nasty bug bite or sting,” said Dr. Rosenstreich. “With a little planning and caution, everyone can have a fun and safe summer.”