Warmer weather is here again — along with a rash of problems
CAPITAL REGION As summer approaches, gallinippers are all the buzz in Central Florida.
The aggressive, quarter-sized mosquitoes — Psorophora ciliata in entomology class — can drill through clothing and deliver a bite that feels more like a pinch.
New Yorkers don’t have to worry about these heavyweight insects born of tropical rains. Residents of the Capital Region and Adirondacks have enough irritants — in the air and on the ground — that will cause itches and rashes during the vacation months of June, July and August.
People who work in the entomology, recreation and medical fields say there are ways to prevent red marks and bumps on skin, and all that rubbing. In some cases, it can be hard to diagnose what caused a rash.
“It’s a very intricate science,” said Dr. Roger Barrowman, chairman of the department of emergency services at Ellis Medicine in Schenectady. “There are many diseases that manifest in a rash that can appear similar to many other diseases, so there’s a lot of crossover and there’s a lot of staging of rashes. You might see it at one point and it doesn’t look so severe or so typical. Then you see it three days later and it’s much more typical and much more easy to identify.
“The timing, the severity, the cause of it are all complicating factors in making an accurate diagnosis,” Barrowman added, “and it’s sometimes very difficult to identify the cause.”
In New York, mosquitoes are often the first suspects when itching begins.
“We have our standard house mosquito, the northern house mosquitoes, the one that most people are familiar with that can carry West Nile virus,” said Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann, an entomologist and coordinator for the New York State Integrated Pest Management Program at Cornell University.
“And somewhere in New York state is the line between who has this mosquito and who doesn’t, but we have the Asian tiger mosquito, which is a new mosquito in eastern New York and that one can carry a lot of emerging diseases like chikungunya and dengue.”
Perhaps not as vicious as the gallinipper, the Asian fliers are also aggressive. In a break from some species’ traditional dawn and dusk activities, Asians are active during daylight hours.
“They will follow you around. It’s a big black-and-white mosquito,” Gangloff-Kaufmann said.
Poison ivy can be another summer problem for hikers and people exploring the outdoors.
“All the time,” said Dr. Theta Pattison, a Guilderland dermatologist, on the frequency she sees poison ivy rash. On Thursday, she had already treated three or four cases by early afternoon.
“I think they had one nice day in the last week, everybody went out into the garden and they all came in with poison ivy on their legs,” she said.
“Poison ivy is very, very common. It’s a real common emergency department complaint,” added Barrowman. “For people who have severe reactions, they can get a real bad skin reaction and be in quite a bit of distress and require prescription medicine to get it resolved.”
The oft-used advice — “leaves of three, let them be” — applies. Contained in the leaves, stems and roots of poison ivy plants — and also in plants such as poison oak and poison sumac — is an oily resin called urushiol. Barrowman said people who have allergic reactions to the oil and begin to scratch affected spots can spread the oil to other parts of their bodies.
Thea Moruzzi, education director for the Adirondack Mountain Club in Lake Placid, said hikers know they can avoid poisonous plants by just staying on marked trails. Staying away from wooded areas, she added, is better for the hiker and better for the environment.
Moruzzi said “zip-off” hiking pants — which give people the option to walk with or without leg coverage — can offer protection against plants and insects. She added that people should be aware that poison ivy grows in many places — not just in wooded areas. It can prosper on roadsides in rural and urban neighborhoods.
The best protection, Barrowman said, is covering skin with clothing. Common sense also helps.
“You’re obviously trying to avoid exposure, so you don’t go into deep brush if you’re playing golf,” Barrowman said. “And if you are exposed, vigorous washing with soap and water as soon as possible after the exposure will reduce a lot of the damage by the oil. You might not eliminate it, but you can markedly reduce the severity of the reaction.”
Summer lovers must resist the urge to scratch red marks and other skin irritations.
“Scratching carries with it the risk of breaking the skin and expanding the itching problem,” Barrowman said. “Some people, and I’m guilty of this myself, the itching becomes so severe and you can actually cause greater harm by damaging the skin and causing an infection from another source.”
Lyme disease, caused by bites from infected deer ticks and often identified by the reddish “bull’s-eye” rash that appears, also booms during summer months.
“We had a guy who came in today and had a tick taken off,” Pattison said on Thursday. “I probably did Lyme tests about five times already this week.”
The deer ticks can be tricky to remove, because they’re so small, but they’re only one of several kinds of ticks in the region.
“Ticks are showing up on kids who have walked across athletic fields, and this isn’t like a black-legged tick or what is called a deer tick,” Gangloff-Kaufmann said. “This is a different kind, called a Lone Star tick, from the Deep South. They’re pretty significant throughout the Northeast and they can transmit disease. But they’re not Lyme disease carriers.”
Parents with active children, Gangloff-Kaufmann said, should check kids’ arms and legs for colored dots in the skin. Even the smallest types are not impossible to see. And Gangloff-Kaufmann said the ticks will generally crawl around skin for a while before biting.
Black flies also leave marks. But Gangloff-Kaufmann said their life cycles are nearly up for 2013.
“Black flies can make life very miserable,” she said. “Some people are allergic to their bites more than a mosquito bite. They come out in the cool early spring and mid-spring time frame.”
Sometimes, cool temperatures in late spring can reduce insect numbers. This year, chilly temperatures around Memorial Day took some insects off the playing field. But it was just a temporary lull.
“It would dampen the population a bit for a period of time, but once you get that warm, humid weather and rain — the biting insects tend to need moisture and mosquitoes and black flies breed in water — once you get that rain and the warmth, mosquitoes just take off. It doesn’t matter if there was a freeze and some were killed,” Gangloff-Kaufmann said.
Keeping them at bay
Gangloff-Kaufmann also said simple things can keep mosquitoes away from backyards — or at least persuade them to find easier targets. Standing water in backyards, she said, must be eliminated. Pails for weeds, candles, even upturned bottle caps will hold water and become ideal breeding spots.
And while some people hate the idea of chemical repellents, Gangloff-Kaufmann never hesitates to spray skin at dusk.
“I tell people all the time, ‘Don’t be afraid to buy DEET or Deep Woods Off and use it, because it works,’ ” she said. “There’s a more family friendly one that contains something called picaridin. It’s a little bit less harsh than DEET, but it works really well.
According to the National Pesticide Information Center at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Ore., picaridin has been widely used as an insect repellent in Europe and Australia, but has only been available in the U.S. since 2005.
Pesticide experts say the chemical seems to block mosquitoes from sensing their prey.
Plant-based sprays and lotion are also effective — but Gangloff-Kaufmann said they just don’t work as long as their chemical counterparts.
“When my son was little, I used an orange-based mosquito repellent and it didn’t work for that long, but I didn’t feel bad about using it on him,” she said.
Gangloff-Kaufmann believes citronella candles and incense-like coils are a waste of money. Even a light breeze will cause the scents to drift, and give mosquitoes openings for their anatomical appointments.
A better investment, especially for people with patios close to their homes, is a floor or ceiling fan.
“A fan will keep mosquitoes from biting you, Gangloff-Kaufmann said. “They can’t orient to you as easily. That’s what ceiling fans are really for. When you think about the tropics, where people had ceiling fans on the porch outside, that was to keep mosquitoes from biting.”
Spiders and wasps
People don’t have to take as many precautions against spiders.
“In New York, we don’t have the poisonous spiders that you might find in the South,” Gangloff-Kaufmann said. “There are certainly no kinds of spiders that would run out and chase you and bite you. Most spiders are too small to bite us anyway, so I think the fear of spiders is larger than it needs to be.”
Some people can fear the brown recluse spider, also known as the violin spider, but they don’t live in New York. Gangloff-Kaufmann said the venomous arachnid is found in midwestern and southern states.
Bees are OK, like bumblebees or honeybees that mind their own business in flower and vegetable gardens.
Wasps, including paper wasps, yellow jackets and bald-faced hornets, are not.
“If you find wasps, yellow jackets are among the most aggressive — especially when you mess with their nests,” Gangloff-Kaufmann said. Yellow jackets typically nest in the ground, and it’s easy to disturb a nest with a lawn mower.
Athlete’s foot, a fungus that can start toes itching after exercise sessions, does not take the summer off.
“It grows in a dark, warm environment,” Barrowman said. “Kids who play basketball in the summer outside and have sweaty feet and sweaty socks, it’s a great environment for athlete’s foot to propagate.”
“But athlete’s foot can be all times of the year, it’s not just limited to this season,” Barrowman said. “It’s a common thing with basketball players in the winter.”
Sunburn can present more significant problems.
“We don’t see a huge number, but every year a nominal amount,” Barrowman said. “It’s not something people often come to the emergency department for. When they do appear, it’s usually because of the pain or an extremely severe case.”
Pattison said sunblock lotions that block both UVA and UVB radiation — UVA rays can cause premature aging and leathery skin, UVB are the main cause of sunburns and skin cancers — can relieve some worry about the sun.
While precautions are advised, Pattison doesn’t want people to stop going outside.
“It’s kind of like if you’re going to drive a car, you run the risk of being in an accident or getting a ticket,” she said. “So you have to be as careful as you can. You’ve got to live you life, too.”