7 Diseases You Can Get From Mosquitoes (and how not to get them)

by Lindsay Shapka in , , ,


Yup, there are a lot of scary viruses that you can get from those tiny little bloodsucking bugs that can be found all over the world. But is that going to stop you from traveling? Probably not. So, instead of staying at home and never leaving your bed, the best thing to do is to learn what these diseases are and how to protect yourself from them.

Zika

This virus was identified in 1947 in Uganda. It has stayed mainly in Africa until recently when it spread to South America and Central America. This virus usually causes mild fever, rash and muscle pain that begins 2-7 days after the bite of an infected mosquito. Only one out of four people will develop symptoms and they are usually mild and will be gone within a week.

  • Transmission: It is transmitted mainly through the bite of an infected mosquito, but can also be transmitted through blood and sexual contact. Studies are currently being conducted on mother-to-child transmission in the womb and the possible effects on the baby.
  • Treatments & Vaccines: Relieving pain, fever and other symptoms. There is currently no vaccine or drug to treat this virus.
  • Will it kill you? Unless you have preexisting health conditions, no. 
  • Where Is It? A few cases in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. More recently there have been outbreaks in Brazil, and other countries of South America and Central America. See the updated map here.

West Nile Virus

Only about 20% of people infected with this virus will ever show symptoms which include high fever, headaches, neck stiffness, muscle weakness, disorientation, and sometimes rashes and swollen glands. Severe cases can lead to convulsions, paralysis and even coma, but this is rare. Symptoms will occur 3-14 days after being bitten. People who are over the age of 50 are at the highest risk of getting this disease.

  • Transmission: Primarily, it is transmitted through mosquito bites, but can also be transmitted by blood transfusion, from mother to unborn child, and through breastfeeding (but this is rare).
  • Treatments & Vaccines: Usually, you just treat the symptoms to make the person infected more comfortable. There is no specific drug or vaccine for this virus.
  • Will it kill you? Unless you have preexisting health conditions, no. 
  • Where Is It? It is commonly found in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, North America, and West Asia. Click here for an updated map and stats on the disease.

Malaria

Though malaria can be a deadly disease, illness and death can usually be prevented. People who show symptoms usually have high fevers, chills, and other flu-like symptoms. Severe symptoms include jaundice, kidney failure, seizures, disorientation, and coma. An infected person can display symptoms from seven days to one year after being infected. It is possible to have symptoms occur over and over, up to four years after the disease has been contracted, and recover each time.

  • Transmission: You can get this disease from infected mosquitoes (most common), blood transfusions, shared needles, and it can also be transmitted from a mother to her unborn child.
  • Treatments & Vaccines: There are antimalarial drugs that you can take. Some have to be started weeks before your trip, and others can be started just days before. It is possible to build up a natural immunity to the disease if you life in a malaria infested area for many years. These drugs are NOT a vaccine. There is no vaccine for this disease. The drugs will help prevent the contraction of the virus, but there is still a small risk of contracting it while on the pills. If you do contract the disease, it can be treated with prescription drugs.
  • Will it kill you? Yes, if you are left untreated or have a preexisting condition. The strain that is the most deadly is found in Africa, south of the Sahara.
  • Where Is It? While cases can be found in North America, it is usually because the individual was recently traveling in an infected area like sub-Saharan Africa, South America, Central America, the Caribbean, Oceania and South Asia. For a complete list of places where this disease is present, click here.

Dengue Fever

There are four different strains of the dengue virus that infect over 100 million people worldwide every year. Symptoms include high fever, bad headache, rash, bleeding gums, pain behind the eyes and in the joints, muscles and bones. The more severe form of the infection causes a hemorrhagic fever that is fatal in about 1% of the people that contract it.

  • Transmission: Mosquitoes are the only way to contract this virus.
  • Treatments & Vaccines: There is no drug or vaccine for this disease. Pain relievers with acetaminophen can relieve the symptoms, as can rest and plenty of fluids.
  • Will it kill you? If left untreated, or if you contract the more severe form, yes it can.
  • Where Is It? Most tropical urban areas of the world. For a complete list click here.

Chikungunya

This virus usually causes an infection that results in fever and joint pain. It has similar symptoms to Dengue, so is often misdiagnosed. It was first identified during an outbreak in Tanzania in 1952.

  • Transmission: This virus is transmitted by mosquitoes that bite mostly during the day.
  • Treatments & Vaccines: There is no dedicated medicine or vaccine for this virus. 
  • Will it kill you? Most people recover fully, though the joint pain can persist for longer. Death is extremely rare.
  • Where Is It? There have been outbreaks in Africa, Asia, Europe, and on some of the islands in the Caribbean. Click here for a map showing the current outbreak areas.

Yellow Fever

This disease has been documented for more than 400 years, and there are about 200,000 cases every year. Symptoms usually occur 3-6 days after contracting it and include chills, fever, headache, vomiting, weakness and body aches. Only a small percentage of people will ever develop more severe symptoms. There is a well developed vaccine for this virus.

  • Transmission: It is transmitted through mosquitoes.
  • Treatment & Vaccines: There is a vaccine, and many countries require that you are vaccinated before you enter. There is no specific treatment if you contract the disease.
  • Will it kill you? The majority of people recover, but it can result in death.
  • Where is it? Currently, it is only in the tropical areas of Africa and the Americas. See maps of specific locations here.

Japanese Encephalitis

The risk of contracting this vaccine-preventable disease is really low, but if you are one of the few, you can look forward to mild symptoms. Severe cases include brain inflammation with headaches, high fever and convulsions. The incubation period is usually 5-15 days.

  • Transmission: You can contract this disease from mosquito bites.
  • Treatment & Vaccines: There is a vaccine for this virus, but no specific treatment.
  • Will it kill you? One in four cases are fatal.
  • Where is it? In Asia and the western Pacific. For a map of infected areas, click here.

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Mosquito Bite Prevention 101: How to avoid getting eaten alive on your next trip

by Lindsay Shapka in , , ,


Nothing can ruin a vacation more than huge, itchy welts all over your body.

I learned the hard way that I react differently to mosquito bites outside of North America when I woke up one morning in Thailand and my eye was swollen shut.

A mosquito had spent the night sucking the blood out of my cheek while I was sleeping.

After the initial shock, of not being able to see out of my left eye wore off, I realized that the entire left side of my body was also itchy and looked down to find even more bites that were quickly swelling to epic proportions. 

To make the situation even worse, my travel buddy, who had been sleeping next to me all night, was completely bite free. 

From that moment on, I decided that mosquito spray was going to have to be my best friend.

Pack mosquito spray (a lot of it)

I know that they are better for the environment and your health, but in my experience, the all-natural or organic bug sprays do not work on the swarms of mosquitos that come from humid, hot climates. 

If you react like I do to foreign mosquitos, stick to sprays that contain DEET. I know, I know, it’s a chemical that can cause side effects if you are exposed to it over the long term, but it’s either that or get eaten alive and potentially contract a fatal disease from one of your swollen bites. In other words, pick your poison. 

The strategy I use is to wear a milder spray (like one of the nicely scented, child-friendly ones) during the day, and then switch to a more intense, deep-woods style spray at night. The heat of the day tends to keep most mosquitos in hiding (though they will still find you when you head to the shade), but they come out in full force once the sun goes down. 

So, other than itchy bites, what are you trying to avoid by using all this bug spray?

There are a few serious diseases that you can get from mosquitos when traveling in tropical and sub-tropical environments:

  •  Malariathere is no cure or shot for this guy, but you can take pills to prevent it
  •  Dengue Feverno cure, no shot, no pills
  • Japanese Encephalitisthere is a vaccination for this one and if you are going somewhere where it is present, get it. This nasty disease can lead to brain damage and death.
  • Yellow Fevervaccine available and some countries won’t even let you in unless you've had it
  • Zika: no vaccine and the long-term side effects are still being investigated

Don't forget your mosquito net!

Other than wearing mosquito spray (I wore it 24 hours a day when in Southeast Asia), I suggest carrying a mosquito net with you. Many hotels will already have them installed in your room, but it’s better not to risk it. Nets are light, don’t take up much room and are easy to set up. Bring some duct tape and a screw in hook as options to hang it up yourself. 

Pack your own coils and candles

If you are planning on sitting out on decks or balconies at night, it’s also worth packing some mosquito coils or small citronella candles to burn to help keep the bugs at bay. 

Antihistamines are your friends

If you do end up getting bitten, an antihistamine will help with the swelling and itching. When I was in Thailand, one of the pharmacists there gave me Tiger Balm to put on the bites which cooled them off and took away some of the irritation as well. 

Try taking vitamin B12

Mosquitos find people using their strong sense of smell, and it has been speculated that eating bananas or taking vitamin B12 will make your blood smell bad and keep them away. There is no scientific evidence to support this, BUT after I started taking B12 daily (this was recommended to me by a Chinese herbalist), any bites that I got didn’t swell or itch.

Know where risk zones are and where help is available

Lastly, check with your local Traveler’s Health Clinic for updates on risk zones, and know where international clinics are located in the countries that you are headed to so you can find help quickly if you need it.

The CDC has great information about prevention, diseases, and where mosquitos carrying different viruses are located. 

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