Dave Moller

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July 16, 2007
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Insect bites can be deadly

Insect bites and stings can make you itch but for some people, allergic reactions occur which can be physically brutal, and on rare occasions, fatal.

That happened earlier this summer when a Nevada County man died from the bite of an assassin bug, according to Dr. Joseph Iser, the county's public health officer. Iser could not reveal the person's name because of patient confidentiality laws.

"The person was allergic to them and wasn't able to get to their medicine in time," Iser said. "It's key in any kind of allergic situation to be near your medicine."

That medicine is called epinephrine, which can be injected quickly by the allergic person to ward off serious effects like fever, hives, swollen glands, facial swelling, breathing difficulties and shock, according to the Mayo Clinic. It is administered by needle or an auto-injector and is also used for those allergic to wasp, bee, yellow jacket and hornet stings.

"You have to keep it on you at all times," because the symptoms can come on within 15 minutes and a speedy injection is paramount, said Dr. Michael McCormick, an allergist with offices in Grass Valley and Auburn.

If your tongue or throat starts to swell up, immediate medical care is needed, he added.

In recent years, a new cause of death from stings have been found on America's highways, McCormick said.

"We are starting to see a significant number of motorcycle deaths that are from bee stings," he said. Allergic riders who are stung may not recognize it or ride too long before getting help, he said, and an accident often results.

Assassin bugs - the killer of a local man - are common in the Sierra foothills, McCormick said. However, only about 7 percent of the human population has the potential to have serious reactions, according to the UC Davis Integrated Pest Management Program Web site.

The assassin bugs are of the Reduviidae family and have a long, needle-like beak they bury into their prey. (See photo)

Far more adverse reactions come from bees, wasps, yellow jackets and hornets, according to the Mayo Clinic. As with the assassin bugs, it is usually the second or a later bite or sting that causes an adverse reaction, according to the Penn State University College of Medicine.

Most people don't know they're allergic until a repeated bite, but they can find out their propensity for insect allergy, according to McCormick.

That can be done with a blood test, but a skin test where the actual allergen is injected under the skin and forms a welt if positive is best, he said.

If you know you are allergic to regular insect bites or stings, you can get progressive shots of the actual venom in order to build up an immunity, a practice called desensitizing, McCormick said. However, that tactic can't be used for assassin bugs.

All the aforementioned stings and bites can be avoided with common sense as well, McCormick said.

"You don't want to look like a flower," with pastel and bright colors, McCormick said. "Wear shoes, you don't want to step on meat bees."

If you're eating outdoors, be careful of what can fly or crawl into your food or drink because the food will attract insects.

You can protect yourself from bug bites and stings by using repellent and wearing long sleeves and pants, according to UC Davis. Keep your house tight to keep insects out by filling cracks with caulking or weather stripping and screen all vents and windows.


To contact Senior Staff Writer Dave Moller, e-mail davem@theunion.com or call 477-4237.

Insect reaction symptoms

If you are bit or stung by an insect and develop the following reactions, seek emergency assistance by calling 911. The symptoms are:

• Rapid heartbeat.

• Breathing difficulties.

• Nausea, cramps, vomiting.

• Dizziness, faintness, confusion.

• Swelling of lips, tongue, throat.

Source: The Mayo Clinic

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The Union Updated Jul 20, 2007 03:40AM Published Jul 16, 2007 03:00AM Copyright 2007 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.