For many of us mosquitos, ticks and chiggers are three of the most irritating problems of outdoor life, but beyond the irritation, the diseases carried by mosquitos and ticks can be devastating.

For many of us mosquitos, ticks and chiggers are three of the most irritating problems of outdoor life, but beyond the irritation, the diseases carried by mosquitos and ticks can be devastating. Lyme disease is a very serious, life-long disease, if not properly diagnosed and treated early. It is the most common insect-transmitted disease in the U.S. and we have it in Texas. It is caused by a bacterium, Borrelia burgdorferi, and carried by infected black-legged ticks (or deer tick, Ixodes scapularis).

West Nile virus is the disease that I worry most about, because I have personally heard stories from people who were very healthy and suddenly became incapacitated and were unable to work or even walk for several months, and then never did recover completely.

Last year we learned about the Zika virus that can be devastating for the fetus of a woman infected during pregnancy, affecting the developing nervous system and often causing the severe malformation known as microcephaly. In recent years we have also learned that we are in the geographic area potentially susceptible to Chikungunya and dengue fever (also known as breakbone fever).

All of these diseases are due to viruses that are transmitted by the Aedes mosquito (A. aegypti and possibly A. albopictus). These insects often breed and lay their eggs in very small collections of water, such as accumulate in old tires or even watering dishes for pets. When a mosquito takes a blood meal from an infected person or animal the virus can then be transmitted in subsequent blood meals. Although they most commonly feed at dusk and dawn, indoors, in shady areas, or when the weather is cloudy, Aedes mosquitos can bite and spread infection all year long and at any time of day.

Your best defense is to practice these four habits:

1. Use an approved insect repellent every time you go outside. Approved repellents are those that contain DEET, picaridin, IR3535 or oil of lemon eucalyptus. Follow the instructions on the label.

2. Regularly (at least once a week) drain standing water, including automatic watering devices for pets and water that collects in empty cans, tires, buckets, clogged rain gutters and saucers under potted plants. Mosquitoes breed in stagnant water.

3. Wear long sleeves and pants at dawn and dusk when mosquitoes are most active.

4. Use air conditioning or make sure there are screens on all doors and windows to keep mosquitoes from entering the home.

Although DEET is the ingredient most commonly recommended, picaridin in similar concentrations appears to be about equally effective and may be better tolerated. DEET can damage clothes made from synthetic fibers and plastics such as eyeglasses and watch crystals. Picaridin 20% provides 8 hours protection against mosquitos and ticks. It does not damage fabrics or plastic but can discolor leather or vinyl. Both DEET and picaridin provide protection against chiggers that is about equal to the protections they provide against ticks. The CDC advises against using combination sunscreen and insect repellent, as the sunscreen must be repeatedly applied, and could thus lead to excessive absorption due to the repeated applications. They also advise that with initial applications of both sunscreen and insect repellant, the sunscreen be applied first, to minimize absorption of the insect repellant.

Other effective chemicals include permethrin, that is actually an insecticide which can be applied to clothing or camping gear and which lasts for several washings, as well as the repellent IR3535. The only natural product that is as effective as the others we have discussed is oil of lemon eucalyptus. Sprays containing 20-30% concentrations of IR3535 or oil of lemon eucalyptus are less well studied than DEET or picaridin, but are effective for 6-8 hours against mosquitos, ticks and chiggers. A large comparison from June 2017 is available without subscription from Consumer Reports at https://www.consumerreports.org/products/insect-repellent/ratings-overview.

This article is intended to provide general information only, and is not to be taken as medical advice. For advice about a particular case or situation, consult your own physician or other trusted health professional.

This column is a service of The Health and Wellness Coalition of Runnels County which now meets every second Thursday at 7 p.m. The next meeting will be May 10 at 7 p.m. at the North Runnels Clinic Conference Room in Winters, and will be devoted to Emergency Planning and Preparation for Healthcare Services and Facilities. Interested professionals are encouraged to attend.