One of the drawbacks to outdoor activities is a relentless pest that seems to have an insatiable appetite – the mosquito. It’s not just a matter of an itchy bump on your skin, mosquitoes can spread illnesses such as the West Nile and Zika viruses. Fortunately, there are some things that can be done to decrease the number of those pesky bugs and to protect you and your loved ones from mosquito bites.

Through August 15, 2017, a total of 22 instances of Zika have been confirmed in Texas according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. There were 323 cases of the virus in Texas in 2015 and 2016 combined. While symptoms of Zika are usually mild, the TDSHS reports, it can cause fever, rashes, joint pain and red eyes. The risk is heightened for pregnant mothers and unborn children.

Symptoms of the West Nile Virus are also usually mild, but can cause fever, headache, body aches, rashes and swollen glands. More severe symptoms are rare but include stupor, disorientation, convulsions, muscle weakness and paralysis. In rare instances, the disease can even be fatal, according to the TDSHS. A total of 26 West Nile cases have been documented in Texas so far this year, with the first case occurring in April. In 2016, a total of 370 cases were reported statewide, resulting in 18 deaths. The TDSHS notes that the majority of people infected with West Nile Virus don’t get sick. About 20 percent of people get sick, and 1 percent of the infections result in serious illness. People over age 50 and those with weakened immune systems are most at risk.

The good news is that fewer than 1 percent of people who are bitten by mosquitoes become seriously ill, the TDSHS notes.

The best way to avoid getting sick is to prevent mosquito bites. The TDSHS recommends four tips:

  • Use an approved insect repellent each time you go outside. The repellents contain DEET, picaridin or lemon eucalyptus oil.
  • Regularly drain standing water, such as that which collects in old tires, empty cans, buckets, clogged rain gutters and other containers that can hold water. Mosquitoes use stagnant water to breed.
  • Those going outdoors are better protected by wearing long pants at dawn or dusk, when the insects are especially active.
  • Use air conditioning instead of open doors or windows to cool your home, and make sure there are screens on doors and windows to help prevent mosquitoes from getting inside your house.

The Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Office has more recommendations to control mosquitoes:

  • Mow grass and tall weeds, which can provide shelter for mosquitoes.
  • Change water regularly in dog water bowls, bird baths and potted plants.
  • Eliminate any place where water collects and can stand for 7-10 days – especially if soil and leaves are present.
  • For areas where water cannot be drained, Agrilife recommends using a larvicide such as Mosquito Dunks or Mosquito Torpedo. These treatments last for up to 30 days.
  • Use of backyard foggers can provide temporary relief.

The National Pesticide Information Center notes that mosquitoes don’t need much water to breed. Even the water from a bottle cap can serve that purpose. The NPIC also recommends wiping out your bird bath every few days, because mosquito eggs can get stuck to the bottom and can survive dry periods.

To protect infants, the NPIC recommends using a mosquito net for baby carriers and strollers. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control notes that many insect repellents can be used on children; however, items containing oil of lemon eucalyptus should not be used on children under age 3.

It’s also important to protect your pets from mosquitoes. Although they are not susceptible to getting the same diseases as people, mosquitoes do cause heartworms which make pets sick and can be fatal. Your veterinarian has information and products available that can prevent this in your pets, and treatment options for pets that have heartworms.

The NPIC also urges people to make sure their swimming pools are maintained properly to ensure they do not become mosquito breeding locations. If you know of an abandoned pool that is collecting water, you should report this concern to your local health department.

The CDC says that sunscreen products and insect repellents can and should be used at the same time by those staying outdoors. The recommendation is to apply the sunscreen first.

When using insect repellent, the CDC suggests:

  • Applying repellents only to exposed skin and clothing, and not applying them under clothing.
  • Do not apply repellents to areas of the body that have been cut or irritated.
  • Do not apply to the eyes or mouth and use in small amounts around ears.
  • Do not allow children to spray themselves. Adults should spray their hands with repellent and then apply it to children. Do not spray kids’ hands, because they may put their hands in their eyes or mouth.
  • When returning indoors, wash exposed skin and clothes. The CDC notes this is especially important when you are using the repellent on multiple days.
  • If someone gets a rash or has a reaction to repellent, stop using it and wash it off. Call the American Poison Control Center for advice at 800-222-1222. If you visit the doctor, take the repellent with you.

More information about mosquito control is available here and here. More information about heartworms can be found here. Additional information about insect repellent use is online on the CDCs website here.