What's bugging us this summer?

Insect bites range from itchy and annoying to life-threatening

By Cindy Brown
For the Taos News
Posted 7/18/19

Everywhere you go this summer in Taos, people are talking about bug bites. Whether you are working outside, gardening, farming, fishing, camping or hiking, this has been a …

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What's bugging us this summer?

Insect bites range from itchy and annoying to life-threatening

Posted

Everywhere you go this summer in Taos, people are talking about bug bites. Whether you are working outside, gardening, farming, fishing, camping or hiking, this has been a big year for bugs, especially no-see-ums (tiny biting midges/gnats) and mosquitoes. Biting bugs are out in greater numbers than ever, with some people saying this is the worst bug season they have seen in 40 years. Not every area has been equally impacted because of Taos Valley's numerous microclimates, but some parts of town that typically don't see many bugs have lots of them this year.

What's biting us?

Sandra Melman, the epidemiologist with the New Mexico Department of Health, says that due to our recent near-record precipitation, the whole state is seeing the biting gnats, ticks and mosquitoes in greater numbers than usual. She said that in Taos, there are several types of mosquitoes that can transmit West Nile disease.

"West Nile cases are typically associated with water, so they are widespread along the Río Grande valley," says Melman. "Every year there are some cases of West Nile reported and that number varies by year. Most people who are infected with West Nile do not notice any symptoms. However, children, the elderly and people with weaker immune systems are more at risk for serious impacts."

Headache and coldlike symptoms can be a sign of the disease. In rare, more serious cases the disease can invade the neurological tissue and cause inflammation of the brain. Melman points out that particularly during the monsoon season, people should be aware of the risk of mosquito bites. She recommends eliminating standing water, having secure screens on doors and windows and being aware of how mosquitoes might come into your home.

"The mosquitoes that carry West Nile are most active at dusk and dawn, so wear long-sleeved shirts and use an FDA-approved bug repellent," says Melman. She points out that birds, horses and humans are susceptible to West Nile. No cases of the Zika virus have been reported in New Mexico, although a few people who have traveled elsewhere and returned to New Mexico have brought the disease with them.

Fleas and ticks are also a concern because they carry bubonic plague and can be brought into your home by pets. Melman suggests that cats and dogs be treated with a veterinarian-approved flea and tick product every summer, especially if they are outside where they might come into contact with rodents.

"In New Mexico, there are a few cases of bubonic plague reported. If not identified and treated, plague can be deadly," says Melman. "With ticks we worry about tularemia and Rocky Mountain spotted fever." She says each year there are approximately three to seven cases of tularemia and two to five cases of plague across the state.

More ideas on preventing bug bites

Staying inside when biting bugs are active is one way to prevent bites. If you are outside, you can block bites to some extent by wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants. Because that isn't always practical in the summertime and bugs can still reach exposed parts like heads and hands, it makes sense to try out some of the many repellents available, including those that are made from essential oils, which are better for you and the environment, too.

"It's been a crazy year for bug bites," says Dr. Lilly-Marie Blecher, naturopathic physician and co-medical director at Taos Whole Health Integrative Care. "No-see-um bites are very hard to prevent. There is a great natural bug bite blend called Solvarome that, if applied regularly, is somewhat effective."

Cindy Stone of Wild Earth Remedies makes two mists that help keep bugs at bay - a lunar mist and sacred smudge spray with locally distilled plant medicine. She sells her products on Saturdays at the John Dunn shops and on her website at wildearthcreams.com.

At Cid's Food Market, they recommend a local product - Lemon Eucalyptus Bug Spray by NurtureEssence. In addition to the lemon eucalyptus, the spray is made with essential oils like citronella, lavender, geranium, neem and peppermint. Also available at Cid's is Badger Anti-Bug spray and balm.

Another local favorite is Bug Me Not Spray and Lotion made at Taos Herb. It is made with a blend of essential oils and is reportedly effective for both no-see-ums and mosquitoes. Rob Hawley formulated the blend about 30 years ago and he says it is particularly effective against no-see-ums and recommends trying cat nip oil spray in addition for mosquitoes. "Bug Me Not is really effective and better for you when contrasted with the relative toxicity of DEET and other chemical ingredients," says Hawley.

He recommends that the formula be reapplied often as the essential oils can evaporate quickly. He says he also tries to cover up as much as possible and sprays the blend on his hat and shoes, as no-see-ums are known to crawl up pants legs.

Confirming what many people have observed, Hawley says that the no-see-um season seems to be lasting longer than usual. "The no-see-ums lay their eggs in moist places. They may hatch at different times in different places, but usually only last about two weeks. In my yard, they are still going strong after four to five weeks."

Treatment for bites

If you get bit by a bug, you can wash it with soap and water to remove insect saliva. If the bite itches, you might try some remedies to stop the itching. "The less you scratch the better," says Blecher. "For many patients, it helps to cool the affected area with cold washcloths or soaking in a cool tub before bed so that you are not woken by the itching."

She uses a few substances that have an antihistamine effect, including the enzyme DAO, vitamin B6 in the form of P5P and vitamin B5 in large doses. "There is some evidence that taking a high dose B complex can prevent bug bites somewhat. We also use antihistamine herbs and natural substances such as quercetin, bromelain, elderberry, larch tree extract and rutin. All of the natural antihistamines work well, but have a short half-life so have to be taken frequently."

Blecher says that some people find that various topical solutions help calm the itch such as CBD salve, topical vitamin D, E and A or aloe vera gel.

Wild Earth products carry products like trementina to help heal bites and stings. "All of my products are locally wild-crafted in New Mexico," says Stone. "The pinyon sap and chaparral have strong drawing out capabilities and the osha root fights any skin infection. A great symbiotic relationship of three of our most powerful plants. They beautifully heal spider bites, bee stings and even pulls the bee stinger out, along with healing the more common mosquito bites."

Other products recommended to help healing include StingEZE, calamine lotion and Benadryl cream.

Although cases of serious disease from bug bites are quite rare, this summer in particular it makes sense to take a few precautions to avoid getting bit and spending the season in discomfort.

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