Americans love summertime. They say all the best memories are made in June, July and August. It’s a season that symbolizes freedom in a country that prides itself on its freedom. Yet so many bad things happen during the warm months as well.
Some of those things, like peaking rates of crime and road accidents, are a result of the warm weather bringing more people out of the house. However, one thing caused specifically by the warm weather is an increased frequency of certain diseases. The heat helps incubate certain bacteria and viruses while welcoming the carriers of others.
Luckily, summer is not nearly as perilous as it used to be. We don’t have to worry too much about polio or yellow fever or cholera anymore – at least, not in the United States.
But there are some seasonal sicknesses that are still hanging on that might have you wondering if you should go out of your way to avoid them. Even if you aren’t too susceptible to disease, your children or elderly family members might be.
Please note this refers to the likelihood of catching these diseases in the United States. If you’re traveling abroad, look into the risks of diseases in those areas as well as whether there are other diseases to avoid that you didn’t even know about.
Those old-timey ailments still occur with some frequency in certain parts of the world, especially in impoverished and tropical countries; remember, even the bubonic plague still sees roughly a thousand new cases every year.
But now, onto the show:
Either you completely forgot about Zika, or you never stopped thinking about it. After an outbreak of the mosquito-borne illness spread to the States a few years ago, the mass panic has mostly died down.
Is it still present in North America? Yes, but you were unlikely to contract it during the outbreak, and you’re even more unlikely to get it now.
The symptoms to watch out for are a high fever, joint and muscle pain, and a severe skin rash; even then, 80% of cases are mild or even non-symptomatic.
The biggest scares with Zika are how it can be spread from a pregnant mother to an unborn child (whereupon it gives the child severe birth defects such as microcephaly) or even between intimate partners, and how even if the first carrier doesn’t have significant symptoms, the next person might get something worse.
You should be alright if you keep an eye out for any symptoms that correlate with a mosquito bite, but stay vigilant, just in case. Those rare cases still happen to somebody. If anything, be more concerned about young children contracting the illness, since their immune systems are weaker.
Verdict: Don’t worry about it too much.
West Nile virus
Before there was Zika, there was the West Nile virus. There was also West Nile virus during Zika, as there was after Zika. Unfortunately, WNV might be here to stay.
After half a dozen major outbreaks in the United States since 1999, there hasn’t been a severe outbreak of the disease since one in the Dallas area in 2012. That said, there have still been at least 2,000 cases per year since then; before 2012, there hadn’t been that many in a year since 2007. Immediately we can see having concerns about WNV is much more plausible than worrying about Zika.
Like Zika, West Nile virus is most commonly spread to humans via mosquito bites (although birds help them carry it). 4 out of 5 people will experience little to no symptoms, and the other 20% may experience the namesake West Nile fever. This includes headaches, vomiting and – also like Zika – a severe rash. Of those who get harsher symptoms, fewer than 1% will ultimately suffer dangerous inflammation of the spinal cord (meningitis) and/or the brain (encephalitis).
For these very unlucky few, their condition will be very precarious, to say the least. At this writing, doctors have not had luck in creating a vaccine for WNV yet, so the best method of avoidance is simply to stay away from mosquitos.
It should be noted that most severe cases are among the elderly, so they should exercise more caution. Also, a heat map shows concentrations of West Nile cases in the South-Central (Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi) and North-Central (the Dakotas, Nebraska, Minnesota and Wyoming) United States.
Verdict: Worry a little bit if anything in the above paragraph gives you the impression that you or someone you care about is at a higher risk.
Mosquitos may be evil, disease-ridden bloodsuckers that do not contribute positively to the ecology of the world besides being food for other animals when they’re in their larval stage (no, really, look it up), but hey, at least they don’t cling to your skin like ticks do.
Lyme disease is chiefly transmitted from tick bites and is most common in forested areas of the Upper Midwest and the Northeast. It’s a bizarre disease that, at the very least, is hard to confuse with anything else.
Firstly, the bite mark. If you get bit by a tick, it will leave a red bump no matter what, but what happens next is effectively the litmus test for Lyme disease.
If the mark goes away after a few days, then likely all is well, but if the mark doesn’t leave and actually expands – especially if it takes the shape of the telltale “bullseye” – then you really need to see a doctor. Note that the bullseye rash may not even hurt or itch but might be warm to the touch.
Other early symptoms include chronic fatigue, aches of the head and body, fevers and chills, and most tellingly stiff necks and swollen lymph nodes.
If left untreated, the effects can become much more damaging. For one thing, severe joint pain is common. Which joints? All of them, but not all at once – it sort of migrates from one area to another. For the most part, however, it finds itself in the knees more often than in other joints; knees often become swollen around the same time.
More troublingly, unchecked Lyme disease can result in neurological problems, including numbness, muscle weakness, isolated paralysis (especially common in the face) and, again, meningitis.
For one reason or another, Lyme disease is on the rise, with the number of cases tripling in the last 15 years. If you live in a woodsy area, look into whether Lyme has been an issue in your locality.
If it has, be cautious when you go outside, and be sure to check your body for sticking ticks at least once a day. Lyme disease almost always comes from ticks that have been attached to a person for more than 24 hours, so if you catch one early, you should be alright.
Like the above diseases, Lyme disease affects children and the elderly. Parents with children may want to look for light long-sleeved shirts and pants for their children to wear during the summer; if the risk is especially bad in your area, tuck their pant legs into their socks. Also be sure to check them for ticks at least as often as you check yourself.
Verdict: You shouldn’t worry so much as you should be cautious. But you should be very cautious.
Wait, what? That’s not a summer-insect-borne disease. Come to think of it, it’s not a very summery disease at all, now is it?
It is, though. Food poisoning is much more common in the summertime because the heat helps foster bacteria and other nasty little things in meat and produce.
Because “food poisoning” (which we’re supposed to be calling “foodborne illness,” but who calls it that?) is simply an umbrella term to describe when any disease is attained via any food, the symptoms vary wildly depending on what you may have caught.
It could be anything from flu-like symptoms to something that requires hospitalization. But you likely don’t want to experience either of those, and neither does anybody else you cares about.
The best method of preventing food poisoning is being critical and careful with your food. Make sure your fruits and veggies are clean and your meat is properly cooked. Avoid cross-contamination at all costs (e.g., keep the raw chicken away from all other foods and drinks). If you don’t own a food thermometer, this is the time of year to buy one.
Enjoy your picnics and cookouts, but don’t get too laid-back. And if there’s a restaurant in town that has a reputation for sketchy food quality, avoid it like the plague.
Verdict: You should worry about this and modify your way of life if you aren’t already adequately prepared to avoid it.
Is Summer Ruined?
It doesn’t have to be. For all these illnesses, the risks for any individual to get them is still low, but as we’ve said, they happen to somebody out there. You might as well take a minute to make it less likely that you are – or that someone you care about is – the one afflicted.
Enjoy the season of freedom, but don’t run away from responsibility just because you can. If there’s one thing to take away from this, it’s that you should put on bug spray, but don’t let it get too close to the burgers on the grill.
You know, wearing sunscreen is probably a good idea, too. Wear sunscreen.