If you’re new to the Cambridge area, you have many wonderful and amazing discoveries to look forward to—great ice cream, swan boats powered by pedal-pushing humans, dazzling fall foliage, and town names pronounced in completely unpredictable ways—“Worcester is pronounced ‘Wooster?’ Woo-ster? Really?” (Yes, really.)
You may also make a few small, less-than-wonderful discoveries in the form of our much-less-beloved local ticks and mosquitos.
The bites of ticks, small arachnids that feed on the blood of birds, reptiles, and mammals, are capable of spreading several different diseases. The most common tick-borne illness in Massachusetts is Lyme disease, which often is characterized by bull’s-eye rash and/or flu-like symptoms. Other relatively common tick-borne diseases in New England are babesiosis, a malaria-like parasitic illness, and anaplasmosis, which causes flu-like symptoms but only rarely a rash. All three illnesses are transmitted by the tiny deer tick.
“Prevention is key,” says Associate Medical Director Howard Heller, an infectious disease specialist, nothing that the CDC recommends using insect repellents that contain 20 to 30 percent DEET (N, N-diethyl-m-toluamide) on exposed skin and clothing and conducting a full-body tick check upon return from any tick-infested areas. “Wearing light-color clothing can also make it easier to spot ticks that may be trying to hitch a ride home,” Heller adds.
If you are bitten by a deer tick, follow the steps in this video to remove the tick safely. If you’re concerned that the tick may have been attached long enough to transmit an illness (12–24 hours for anaplasmosis; 36–48 hours for Lyme disease and babesiosis), Heller recommends calling your primary care provider or MIT Medical’s main number at 617-253-4481 for advice on what to do next. “In some cases,” Heller explains, “we may prescribe preventive antibiotics.”
While most of the 51 mosquito species in Massachusetts do not transmit any human diseases, residents of the state must remain vigilant for two rare, but potentially serious, mosquito-borne viruses, eastern equine encephalitis (EEE) and West Nile virus (WNV). So far this year, the state has seen only one case of WNV, and no human cases of EEE, Heller notes, but the risk period continues until the first hard frost—usually the end of October. In addition to using mosquito repellant, Heller advises covering up with “long-sleeved shirts, loose pants, and socks” if you are going to be outdoors during the peak mosquito biting times near dawn and dusk. More information on mosquito-borne illnesses is available from the Cambridge Public Health Department and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
MIT Medical offers testing for individuals with symptoms of tick- or mosquito-borne illnesses and treatment for those found to be infected. But, Heller emphasizes, the possibility of being bitten by a tick or mosquito is no excuse for staying indoors. “If we take reasonable precautions,” he says, “there’s no reason that fear of tick- or mosquito-borne illness should keep us from enjoying all the great outdoor activities that New England has to offer.”