In my native South Carolina, mosquitoes resemble small birds. Well, not really, but sometimes it feels like it. They buzz around in clouds at dawn and dusk and when they strike, they can leave red welts that swell up and ceaselessly itch. But for the most part that’s usually the worst of it. Our mosquitoes, though sizable and irritating, don’t usually spread disease.
However, when you head down to the Caribbean, Central and South America, and a number of other tropical and sub-tropical regions around the globe, mosquitoes can be much more dangerous and many can spread serious diseases. Whether you’re an all-out globetrotter or you’re just planning a family trip to the tropics, our guide to avoiding mosquito-borne disease is here to help.
Common Mosquito-Borne Diseases
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, dengue fever is the leading cause of death and illness in the tropics and subtropics. It’s a painful illness with symptoms that include severe headache, joint pain, pain behind the eyes, bleeding and bruising, high fever, and a low white blood cell count. The symptoms can worsen significantly causing severe abdominal pain, blood in vomit, bleeding in the gums, difficulty breathing, and even death.
Malaria was eradicated in the U.S. in the 1950s but it’s still a persistent problem in other parts of the world including Africa and Southeast Asia. Malaria is marked by flu-like symptoms including fever, chills, muscle aches, and tiredness. It can cause jaundice and anemia, and eventually, it can cause mental confusion, coma, and death.
Similar to dengue fever, the disease is marked by fever and serious joint pain. Other symptoms include swelling joints, headache, and rash. While the disease is quite painful, it doesn’t usually result in death and goes away after a few weeks although some people have joint pain for months.
Zika causes similar symptoms to that of your average virus including fever, joint pain, headache, lack of appetite, and nausea. The symptoms are much less severe than dengue and often are not even noticeable. It’s most dangerous for pregnant women because it prevents the laying down of neurons for babies in the womb. Babies are born with abnormally small heads because the disease decreases the amount of brain matter, causing severe disability. It also has an STD component and can stay alive in the seminal fluid for up to six weeks.
West Nile Virus
The West Nile Virus is one of the few mosquito-borne diseases that can occur in the continental U.S. Most people (eight out of 10) don’t show any symptoms of the disease. But one in 10 people that contract the West Nile Virus will develop a nervous system reaction that can be deadly.
***Seek medical attention if you think you have any of these conditions.
Where Are Mosquito-Borne Diseases Found?
- Dengue, chikungunya, and Zika are all spread by the female Aedes aegypti mosquito which is found in tropical and subtropical areas like the Caribbean, Central America, Southeast Asia, and South America.
- Female Anopheles mosquitoes spread malaria which is also found in tropical and subtropical areas in Africa, Central America, South America, and Southeast Asia.
- The Culex species of mosquitoes carry the West Nile Virus and the disease is found in North America, the Middle East, Africa, and other parts of the world.
***Before you travel, it’s best to check if these diseases are present in the place that you’re going so you can take the proper precautions. CDC's Traveler's Health site is a great tool.
Should You Use DEET to Prevent Mosquito-Borne Diseases?
Unfortunately, the only disease of those listed that can be prevented with medication is malaria, (Talk to your doctor and make sure that you’re preventing the disease with anti-malaria medication prior to traveling to areas where malaria is present.) There are currently no vaccines to prevent dengue, chikungunya, West Nile, and Zika. DEET is the most effective barrier protection, according to the CDC. It works by deterring mosquitoes, not actually killing them when they land on you. Here are some tips for applying it safely:
- You should not apply DEET to babies younger than 2 months. Be careful applying it to kids' hands because they could put their in hands in their mouths.
- Don’t apply it to the face.
- Don’t apply 100 percent DEET; 30 percent DEET products can provide at least a few hours of protection. The higher the percentage, the longer the protection.
- When you come inside and are safe from mosquitoes, wash up with soap and water to remove the chemical.
Other Tips to Protect Against Mosquito-Borne Disease
Disease-carrying mosquitoes are usually not those found deep in the woods, they live near humans and transmit disease by biting humans that carry them. Preventing mosquito-borne disease is about eliminating the areas that mosquitoes breed around humans.
- Avoid areas of standing water where mosquitoes can lay eggs and breed. Dump out buckets of water, bird baths, etc.
- Stay inside at dawn and dusk when mosquitoes are prevalent.
- Cover yourself in clothing from head-to-toe.
- While DEET is known to be the best barrier protection in areas where disease producing mosquitoes thrive, other forms of protection include Picaridin (also known as KBR 3023, Bayrepel, and icaridin products) and oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE) or PMD, which is the only botanical form of protection recommended by the CDC.
- Use a bed net if you’re sleeping outside.
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