A look at the Lowcountry’s most common pests—and how to fend off their bites and stings
Written by Anna Miller
Pick your summertime pleasure. Is it fishing in the marsh creeks, walking through the woods, gardening a morning away? Or maybe your happy place is behind the grill, tunes playing and kids running wild.
During this season’s long, sunny days, most everyone’s looking to get outside—an action that’s known to benefit mental and physical health (yep, even standing over those sizzling burgers amid green space may boost your energy and immune system). The trouble is, we aren’t the only ones exploring, tending our nests and eating alfresco this time of year. Insects and arachnids are too.
“Usually, bites and stings are very mild,” says Dr. Jeanne Lumpkin, a Roper St. Francis Healthcare affiliated family medicine doctor. However, they can sometimes bring on severe allergic reactions and even spread diseases. In the following pages, Dr. Lumpkin takes a magnifying glass to five of the peskiest pests, explaining the best first-aid steps, as well as which symptoms warrant a trip to the doctor. You’ll also learn the safest, most effective ways to prevent bites from the start.
Meet the Pests
It’s worth remembering that, even when cast as “bad guys,” each of the Lowcountry’s leading bugs plays an important part in the ecosystem. For starters, blood-sucking mosquitoes and ticks are food sources for animals ranging from birds to reptiles. Spiders, in turn, devour some 2,000 insects a year each. Fire ants serve as tiny tillers, aerating the soil so water and oxygen can better reach plant roots. And the stinger-wielding family that includes honeybees, bumblebees and wasps (like yellow jackets and hornets) is essential for pollinating plants.
Another thing these critters have in common? When mild, their bites and stings can usually be soothed with a cool compress and over-the-counter medication (see sidebar on the next page for Dr. Lumpkin’s suggested regimen). Other times, additional steps may be warranted.
Everyone knows that most mosquito bites look like small red bumps—that’s your immune system fighting their saliva. “But sometimes, especially in children, bites can trigger a hyper-sensitivity reaction: a bigger area of swelling and redness, hives, or even a low-grade fever or swollen lymph nodes,” explains Dr. Lumpkin. This can happen because the person hasn’t yet been exposed to that kind of mosquito—there are some 61 species buzzing about South Carolina, after all. “An antihistamine like Benadryl, Zyrtec or Claritin may help with symptoms of swelling and itching.”
Mosquitoes can also spread diseases, including Zika virus (which hasn’t been active in the U.S. in more than two years) and West Nile (two cases of which were reported in South Carolina last year). If you experience fever, headaches, body aches, nausea, rash or fatigue, head to the doctor. Symptoms of mosquito-borne illnesses generally remain mild and clear up with rest and hydration; however, complications can occur, so it’s important to seek medical care if those symptoms surface.
The other pest notorious for spreading disease—namely Lyme disease—is the tick. Living in tall grasses, leaf litter, shrubs and trees, they latch onto passersby. The eight-legged creatures then crawl to a warm, moist area of the body, like an armpit, groin or beneath hair and begin to draw blood. The good news? “Ticks in South Carolina don’t often carry bacteria that they can transmit to humans,” says Dr. Lumpkin. “Plus, to pass Lyme disease, they have to be attached for at least 36 hours.”
Give yourself and/or family members a thorough check after hanging out in wooded areas. If you find one, remove it immediately. “Take hold of the tick as close to the skin as you can, ideally with a pair of tweezers, and pull it straight out—no twisting,” instructs Dr. Lumpkin. It’ll likely leave behind a red, swollen mark. As long as that isn’t followed by a rash or illness, you’re in good shape. If those symptoms do develop, head to the doc.
TIP! If possible, put any ticks found on the body in a Ziploc bag, note the date and place it in the freezer. “In the rare case that you do develop some sort of reaction, it will help the doctor be able to identify it,” explains Dr. Lumpkin.
While the tick’s arachnid kin, the spider, makes many a palm sweat, most are absolutely harmless. If you happen to be bitten, you’ll likely experience nothing more than an itchy or painful bump. For Lowcountry residents, two spider species—each dwelling in undisturbed locations, like attics and sheds—tend to give the family a bad rap. The bite of a brown recluse feels like a sting. An open sore develops within hours or days and the surrounding skin begins to die. Usually it’ll heal on its own in about a week, but a doctor should take a look.
Black widows are more dangerous—particularly for the very young and old. Within a few hours, pain spreads from the bite mark into the back, chest or stomach. If a bite is suspected, go immediately to the emergency room, where treatment may range from painkillers to anti-venom.
There’s one well-known creepy crawler that bites and stings: the fire ant. Painful and itchy, “The wounds form a little pustule on top,” says Dr. Lumpkin. “That’s actually an antiseptic inflammatory reaction that you should try to keep intact. Consider covering the bites with a bandage to help prevent rupture and infection.”
Bees and wasps reign as the most notorious stingers, surprising their targets with sharp, burning pain. A red welt generally remains for a few hours, but occasionally grows a bit bigger and lasts for about a week. While many insects—including mosquitoes and ants—have the ability to cause a severe allergic reaction known as “anaphylaxis,” bees are the top culprits. “About 0.3 to three percent of bee stings result in anaphylaxis,” says Dr. Lumpkin. If a person experiences difficulty breathing; swelling of the lips, eyelids or throat; or other symptoms (detailed in the sidebar to the right), “Call 911 or go to the emergency room right away.”
When it comes to bees, ants and spiders, keeping an eye out for nests can go a long way toward preventing run-ins. Also, dress wisely: Forgo fragrances and wear light colors. “Bees and mosquitoes are drawn to bright hues as well as black,” explains Dr. Lumpkin. And the more skin that is covered, the better.
Insect repellents containing either DEET or picaridin are the best ways to keep mosquitoes and ticks away. Both are perfectly safe for anyone over the age of 2 months (including pregnant women) when applied according to the label’s instructions. “If using DEET on small children, I recommend products at 10 percent concentration,” Dr. Lumpkin advises. “You’ll just have to apply them more often given the lower concentration.” She stresses that 10 percent DEET should only be used on children who are older than 2 months and if an adult supervises application. “It should never be applied to the lips or hands,” she says.
Looking for a natural solution? “Oil of lemon eucalyptus has been shown to be effective,” she notes; however, it isn’t safe for children under age 3. Aim to slather on sunscreen 20 minutes before repellant, and, for added protection, spray clothing and sporting gear with the permethrin, a pesticide that kills bugs on contact.
There isn’t a clear consensus on the effectiveness of citronella candles and other bug-deterring products on the market, or on the safety of treating home landscapes with insecticides. However, keeping your yard tidy is a surefire way to control mosquito and tick populations. Eliminate standing water—right down to rain pooled in flowerpot saucers—mow the lawn regularly and clear out leaf litter and brush.
If you take these steps, there’s no reason to let bugs ruin your summer fun. “Get outside and play, exercise and relax!” urges Dr. Lumpkin.
Learn ways to soothe minor bites and stings at home and get the scoop on symptoms of severe allergic reaction (which, though rare, can be caused by bees, ants and mosquitoes)
To treat mild reactions:
• Wash the area with soap and water. If a bee’s stinger is in the skin, remove it promptly using your fingernail or the edge of a credit card.
• If the injury is on an arm or leg, elevate it.
• Apply a cool compress to ease pain and swelling.
• Use hydrocortisone cream to reduce swelling and itching. A baking soda paste also does the trick, with the added benefit of reducing pain. To make, mix one tablespoon of baking soda with a few drops of water. Apply for about 10 minutes then wash off.
• If needed, take an OTC antihistamine such as Benadryl, Claritin or Zyrtec for itching, or an
anti-inflammatory like Motrin or Advil for pain.
Seek emergency care if experiencing:
• Difficulty breathing
• Swelling of the lips, eyelids or throat
• Dizziness, faintness or confusion
• Rapid heartbeat
• Nausea, cramps or vomiting
While waiting for medical help, loosen tight clothing and do not drink water. If the person is vomiting, position him or her upright or on their side to prevent choking. If he or she shows no signs of circulation (breathing, coughing or movement), begin CPR.
DID YOU KNOW? Certain people really do get “eaten” by mosquitoes more than others. Experts aren’t sure why, but it could have to do with one’s blood (beware, type Os), how much carbon dioxide the person emits when they breathe or bacteria living on their skin.
Photographs by (legs with bites) Shutterstock/ MIA Studio & (little girl) shutterstock/Kwangmoozaa