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Some Bug Bites Can Make You Sick

Providence Veterans Administration Medical Center Infection Control Team
Contributed by Eileen M. Kirshenbaum RN, MHV Coordinator

Summer is a fun time but it is also a time we encounter outside bugs that bite. Most bug bites cause no serious or lasting health problem. But on occasion, they can may you sick. Some mosquitoes carry a virus called West Nile Virus. About 80 percent of people (about 4 out of 5) who are infected with this virus will not show any symptoms at all. Up to 20 percent of the people who become infected have symptoms. Another bug bit that can make you sick comes from ticks. Some ticks can carry an infection called Lyme Disease. Ticks that carry Lyme disease are so small that they are very hard to see. Learn more about these two diseases that come from an insect bite and what you can do to protect yourself.

West Nile Virus

A mosquito on an armWest Nile virus is a potentially serious illness. The virus is considered a seasonal epidemic in North America. The virus usually flares up in the summer and continues into the fall. The virus is spread by the bite of an infected mosquito. Mosquitoes become infected when they feed on infected birds. Infected mosquitoes can then spread virus to humans and other animals when they bite.


  • The easiest and best way to avoid the virus is to prevent mosquito bites

  • When you are outdoors, use an insect repellent containing an EPA-registered active ingredient. Follow the directions on the package

  • Many mosquitoes are most active at dusk and dawn. Be sure to use insect repellent and wear long sleeves and pants at these times or consider staying indoors during these hours

  • Make sure you have good screens on your windows and doors to keep mosquitoes out

  • Get rid of mosquito breeding sites by emptying standing water from flower pots, buckets and barrels.

  • Change the water in pet dishes and replace the water in bird baths weekly

  • Drill holes in tire swings so water drains out

  • Keep children's wading pools empty and on their sides when they are not being used.


About 80 percent of people (about 4 out of 5) who are infected with this virus will not show any symptoms at all. Up to 20 percent of the people who become infected have symptoms. These may include fever, headache, and body aches, nausea, vomiting, and sometimes swollen lymph glands or a skin rash on the chest, stomach and back. Symptoms can last for as short as a few days. Yet, even healthy people have become sick for several weeks. Severe symptoms can include: high fever, headache, neck stiffness, stupor, disorientation, coma, tremors, convulsions, muscle weakness, vision loss, numbness and paralysis. These symptoms may last several weeks, and neurological effects may be permanent.


There is no specific treatment for West Nile infection. In severe cases, people may need to go to the hospital. There they can receive supportive treatment. This may include: intravenous fluids help with breathing and nursing care. If you develop symptoms such as unusually severe headaches or confusion, seek medical attention immediately.

Lyme Disease

A tickLyme disease is an inflammatory disease spread through a tick bite.

Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi (B. burgdor-feri). Certain ticks carry these bacteria. The ticks pick up the bacteria when they bite mice or deer that are infected with Lyme disease.


The first symptoms resemble the flu. Such as: chills, fever, headache, lethargy, and muscle pain, there may be a "bull's eye" rash, a flat or slightly raised red spot at the site of the tick bite. Often there is a clear area in the center. It can be larger than 1-3 inches wide. Symptoms can appear between 3-30 days of the bite.

Symptoms in the later stage include: joint inflammation and or pain, stiff neck, and confusion. There is a blood test available that can confirm Lyme disease.


A full course of antibiotics is used to treat people who are proven to have Lyme disease. The specific antibiotic used depends on the stage of the disease and the symptoms. If diagnosed in the early stages, Lyme disease can be cured with antibiotics. Without treatment, complications involving the joints, heart, and nervous sys-tem can occur.


When in wooded or grassy areas

  • Spray all exposed skin and your clothing with it repellant, containing greater than 20% DEET

  • Wear light-colored clothing to make it easier to spot ticks

  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants with the cuffs tucked into shoes or socks

  • Wear high boots, preferably rubber, check your-self and your pets frequently.

Ticks that carry Lyme disease are so small that they are very hard to see. After returning home, remove your clothes and thoroughly inspect all skin surface areas, including scalp. And body folds

Learn more

West Nile - provides basic information about the virus and what you need to know

West Nile Virus: Questions and Answers the Center for Disease Control put together a selection of answers to the questions people ask most about West Nile virus and West Nile virus encephalitis.

Lyme Disease - provides basic information about the disease and what you can do to protect yourself

Tick Removal

What to Do About: Bee and Wasp Stings - know the signs of an infection or allergic reaction, and when to get medical attention.

Learning Activity

Stinging Insect Matching Game Stinging insects can ruin summer fun for those who are allergic to their sting. It is important to learn the difference between the different kinds of stinging insects in order to keep your summer safe and enjoyable.

Lyme Disease a learning activity that helps you better understand the disease

Updated/Reviewed: August 1, 2011