Spring and summer bring warmth and outdoor barbecues … and creeping, crawling, flying critters that want nothing more than to suck your blood.
Ticks, mosquitos, chiggers and biting flies are among the scourges of summer. Here's a rundown on how to cope.
Ticks: Ticks aren't insects; they're arachnids, just like spiders. They lurk in wooded and brushy areas and love to hitch rides on passing people or animals, finding a cozy spot and digging in for a meal of blood.
Tick bites are rather unpleasant to contemplate. The arachnids have mouthparts equipped with telescoping shafts that puncture the skin. A bundle of bendable, barbed "fingers" manipulate the skin to anchor the hyposome, the spear-like structure ticks use to feed. [Watch: Video of a Tick Bite Up Close]
Even worse, bites can transmit diseases. Among the most well-known are Lyme disease, which can bring fatigue, fever and a bull's-eye rash, and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, which causes fever, pain and vomiting and can even be fatal. Another potentially serious tick-borne disease spreading across the Northeast and Upper Midwest is the parasitic illness babesiosis, which some experts fear could someday become as common as Lyme disease.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends avoiding prime tick habitat (bushy areas with high grass from which ticks can hop onto passersby) and repelling ticks with products containing a chemical called permethrin. DEET in concentrations of 20 percent to 30 percent is considered effective by the CDC.
The CDC also recommends checking your body after coming in from outdoors; ticks sometimes take their time latching on, so you may be able to brush them off before they bite.
If you do find a tick embedded in your skin, grab the tick as close to the skin as possible using fine-tipped tweezers, the CDC recommends. Pull with steady, upward pressure and do not twist the arachnid — you want to extract the mouthparts, not break them off. If the mouthparts do end up embedded, use tweezers to remove them if possible, or dab the spot with iodine or rubbing alcohol and allow it to heal. Watch closely to see if a rash develops, along with other symptoms such as pain or fever. [Read More: Treating Insect and Spider Bites & Stings]
Mosquitos: Nothing ruins an evening on the porch like a swarm of mosquitos buzzing in your ear and dive-bombing onto your skin. But warding off these biters is tough, because they're drawn to the carbon dioxide in your breath and the heat of your body.
Mosquito mouthparts aren't quite as elaborate as ticks', but they still manage to be creepy. As this video of a mosquito bite reveals, mosquitos can bend and probe into your skin with their proboscises, searching out a rich vein of blood to tap.
Insect repellants can keep mosquitos at bay. The CDC recommends looking on the ingredient list for DEET, picaridin, IR3535 or oil of lemon eucalyptus. (Citronella candles are no more effective than regular candles, according to a 2011 report by North Dakota State University entomologist Janet Knodel.) Long-sleeved, loose clothing can keep mosquitos away from your skin. Dusk and dawn are prime feeding times, so limit your outdoor time during these periods, if possible.
Biting flies: Flies are irritating enough, but the ones that bite are downright awful. Various biting flies feed on human and animal blood, and their nips can leave painful welts. Among the perpetrators are species of deer fly, sand fly, horse fly and black fly. Black flies have even been known to kill ostriches, which have severe reactions to the insects, according to Colorado State University entomologists.
Large biting flies are also joined by "no-see-ums" or biting midges, which can often evade screen doors to get inside.
Biting flies do not transmit as many diseases in the U.S. as they do in other parts of the world. However, the deer fly Chrysops discaliscan can transmit a bacterial infection called tularemia.
DEET and picaridin repellents work best to keep biting flies at bay, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. Light-colored clothing that covers the skin also helps prevent fly bites.
Chiggers: These itsy-bitsy irritants are part of a family of mites known as Trombiculidae. Chiggers are tinier than the period at the end of this sentence, and live in grassy or forested areas. Southerners and Midwesterners are likely most familiar with the species Trombicula alfreddugesi, which lives in these regions.
Disturbingly, chiggers don't so much bite as digest. The larvae excrete digestive enzymes onto their hosts' skins, creating holes. These holes act like feeding tubes from which chiggers can slurp partially digested skin cells from lower layers. Unsurprisingly, the result is nasty swelling, hives, itching and pain that can last more than a week.
Fortunately, chiggers aren't known to transmit disease, but that may be of little solace to someone suffering the nasty aftereffects of the bites. As with other pests, chiggers can be stymied with long sleeves and pants tucked into socks or boots, according to the U.S. Army Public Health Command. Avoid brushy, chigger habitat in the afternoon, when it's warmest and when chiggers are most active. DEET and permethrin products can also repel chiggers.
You can also test for chigger hotspots in your yard by placing small squares of black cardboard on the ground, according to the Public Health Command. Within a few minutes, mites will congregate on the cardboard. Chiggers tend to hang out in isolated areas, so pesticides can be concentrated on those spots.