PEOPLE Health Squad: Dr. Travis Stork on How to Protect Yourself from Zika, West Nile and Lyme Disease
Dr. Travis Stork from the PEOPLE Health Squad and The Doctors shares how to protect yourself from mosquito and tick–transmitted diseases this summer
Summer may be the carefree season of rosé-fueled rooftop parties, backyard BBQs and long-awaited vitamin D exposure, but all those outdoor activities and skin-baring outfits also mean more exposure to potentially deadly tick and mosquito bites.
According to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, cases of illnesses stemming from tick, mosquito and flea bites — such as Zika, West Nile and Lyme disease — have tripled over the last 13 years, and the United States is not “fully prepared” for what’s to come.
The likelihood of contracting these diseases skyrockets in the summer, but there are steps you can take to protect yourself and your family. In order to safely make the most of the upcoming warmer months, we spoke with with Dr. Travis Stork, an ER physician, host of The Doctors and a member of PEOPLE’s Health Squad, to find out everything you need to know about these diseases and how to avoid them.
Knowing how they’re spread is a good place to start. Lyme disease is contracted through the bite of an infected tick, while Zika and West Nile virus are spread through infected mosquitos. Zika can also be passed through sex with an infected partner, or a pregnant woman to her fetus, increasing the risk of serious birth defects .
Pregnant women are especially encouraged to avoid areas with Zika outbreaks, like Florida and the Caribbean. “Many people infected with Zika won’t have symptoms or will only have mild symptoms,” he explains. “However, a pregnant woman, even one without symptoms, can pass Zika to her developing fetus.”
Recognizing the symptoms of these diseases is another crucial step to preventing their deadly consequences. “Early signs of Lyme disease include a rash that follows a bulls-eye pattern and can sometimes expand beyond initial bite site,” says Dr. Stork. He explains that flu-like symptoms such as chills, fever, body aches and fatigue can also accompany the rash.
Dogs bitten by an infected tick can also contract Lyme disease, so it’s important to check them for ticks and tick bites when they come inside, as only 5-10% of them show symptoms (lameness and joint stiffness).
Symptoms of West Nile virus, although they only occur in about 20% of people who contract it, are headaches, body aches, joint pain, rashes, vomiting or diarrhea. While anyone can contract the virus, it is most prevalent in people over the age of 50 and those with weaker immune systems.
Symptoms of Zika (which Dr. Stork reminds us don’t always show) include fever, rashes, headaches, joint pain, conjunctivitis and muscle pain.
If you or a family member start showing any of these symptoms, he suggests seeing your healthcare provider immediately. “They can discuss your symptoms with you and order additional testing to ensure you are correctly diagnosed.”
“The best way you can protect yourself from any of these diseases is to avoid areas where they thrive,” Dr. Stork tells PEOPLE. “Lyme disease-carrying ticks are most prevalent in the wooded areas, tall grass and lawns and gardens that we tend to play, hike and relax in during summer months, so people really have to be proactive in protecting themselves.”
He suggests avoiding tall grasses and always checking for ticks after being outside. Mosquitos thrive near standing water and are most active starting at dusk, so if you find yourself outside in the evenings, be sure to wear insect repellant with DEET and cover up with long-sleeves and pants whenever possible.
Lastly, if you’re planning a trip this summer, Dr. Stork recommends checking the CDC’s website to see if there’s a risk of contracting these diseases where you’re going. “The CDC is a great resource for travelers and maintains up to date records on cases of these disease and others reported around the world. Always check out their website before traveling to [see] if there is a warning for where you are headed.”