​​Image of Mosquito
(Photo: Flickr, Ryan Lebel)​

Think your Uncle Bob is the peskiest uninvited guest? Think again. Whether you're heading to the cottage with family or hiking through the woods with friends, there's one group of party crashers you should prepare for – bugs.

They're known for their taunting "buzz" and spiteful itchy bites, but insects can leave you with a lot more than a red bump.

Chikungunya virus

"We've seen outbreaks of West Nile, Lyme disease, dengue fever and chikungunya result in deaths around the world," said Dr. Michael Gardam, director of Infection Prevention and Control at UHN. "And the one thing these potentially-fatal viruses have in common is that they are transmitted by insects."

Chikungunya is the latest bug-borne virus that has people worried. The virus is specific to mosquitoes and first affected the Caribbean, but has recently made its way to the United States.

Dr. Gardam agrees the virus is serious, but stresses that this shouldn't send you into a panic as almost all of the viruses transmitted by insects can be treated effectively if identified early.

Don't panic, know prevention

"We live in a country known for its great outdoors, and bugs shouldn't prevent people from enjoying that," said Dr. Gardam. "That being said – it's important for the public to know about these viruses, their signs and symptoms, and the course of prevention and treatment."

Most viruses transmitted from insects – like mosquitoes or ticks – show similar signs and symptoms: bump or rash around the area of infection, swelling, headache, nausea, sore joints and vomiting. These symptoms are quite vague, which is why they can go ignored and untreated.

If you experience any of these symptoms after being in a wooded area or travelling outside of the country, you should visit a doctor and ensure you tell them of your recent travels and activity. Dr. Gardam explains that most of these viruses wouldn't be diagnosed through routine tests, which is why patients are responsible for providing a brief history to their health team.

"Lyme disease is very controversial because it often goes undiagnosed, and if untreated it can lead to serious neurological impairments or even death," said Dr. Gardam. "The reason it can be overlooked by physicians is because it shares symptoms similar to other viruses or diseases. If patients make it a priority to tell their physician of their recent travels or outdoor activity, it will prompt the physician to consider insect-borne viruses."

Dr. Gardam's '5 Insights on Insect Bites'

Dr. Gardam simplified his complex knowledge on insect-borne infectious diseases into "5 Insights on Insect Bites" – a quick tip sheet to keep on hand at the cottage or in your suitcase!

  1. Cover exposed skin
    If you're in a shaded or wooded area where there are likely to be insects, wear a long-sleeve shirt, and tuck your pants into your socks. Bugs are small and often difficult to see, so cover areas of exposed skin.
  2. Use bug spray
    Insects might still land on you for a brief second, but the scent of the DEET will deter them from biting you.
  3. Get to know the insects in your area
    For instance, there are different types of mosquitoes – ones that bite at night, and ones that bit during the day. You can learn about bugs in specific geographic locations by consulting CDC's Yellow Book, which is especially useful if you're travelling.
  4. Understand the route of transmission
    Insects pick up the virus from a source that has it already and the virus is then able to travel human to human through a vector: the insect itself.
  5. Tell your doctor about recent travel or outdoor activity
    Your recent trip through the Rocky Mountains might seem insignificant to you, but your doctor would know that area is populated with the American dog tick, which transmits Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Be sure to talk to your doctor before travelling, and if you present symptoms upon return, let them know of your recent whereabouts. This will speed up the treatment process!

 

Don't start squirming and itching just yet! While Canada does have mosquitoes and ticks, the population is controlled by the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Health Canada.

For a full list of vector-borne diseases, visit CDC's website.

Be sure to check out Summer Health Series on healthy grilling, pool safety, skin protection and tips for safe fun at summer festivals.   

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