What Illnesses Do We Get From Mosquitos and How Can We Avoid Them?
Mosquitos aren’t just irritating; their bites can itch like crazy. Protecting yourself and your family from mosquitoes is essential for enjoying the outdoors without worrying about your health and safety. Unfortunately, that’s harder to do in some areas than in others. Swamp angels are particularly fond of our warm, wet climate. All mosquitos have similar life cycles, taking less than a month to develop into a full-blown adult. And adult mosquitos can carry a variety of diseases from one host to another, which is what makes them a major concern in some parts of the South. West Nile Virus is seen most often. Others like Zika Virus, Chikungunya Virus, Dengue and Malaria occur less and are often the result of international travel. Let’s take a closer look at these threats.
West Nile Virus
According to the Center of Disease Control, West Nile virus is the leading cause of mosquito-borne disease in the continental United States. It generally spreads to people from bites of infected mosquitoes, who get infected after biting infected birds. It’s good to note that infection can’t happen from casual contact with an infected animal or person. Bites and infections occur during warmer weather when mosquito activity is higher.
Most people who become infected with West Nile do not show any symptoms, only about 1 in every 5 cases (about 20%). And while critical cases don’t happen very often, it’s important to know the signs that could be signaling something more serious.
In cases where light symptoms are present, most people develop a fever along with other symptoms like:
• joint pains
• body aches
And while most recover completely, some experience weakness and fatigue that can last for weeks or even months. Currently, there is no vaccine or specific medication for West Nile infection. In cases where symptoms are mild you can use over the counter pain relivers to combat any symptoms. Most recover quickly with fluids and plenty of rest.
Although less common, the virus can cause a serious nervous system (neurological) infection. This could include inflammation of the brain or of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord (meningitis). Those most at risk for developing this type of serious infection are the elderly and those with certain diseases like high blood pressure, cancer, kidney disease or diabetes. Symptoms of these types of infections can cause:
• high fever
• stiff neck
• confusion or disorientation
• vision loss
Symptoms of these more severe infections can linger for weeks or months. And certain neurological effects, like muscle weakness, can be permanent. For any of the symptoms mentioned above, seek medical attention immediately. A serious infection generally requires hospitalization.
Less common in the United States, Zika Virus is found primarily in tropical and subtropical areas and is often transmitted by the Aedes species of mosquitos. Thankfully, according to the Louisiana Department of Health, there has not been any local transmission of Zika this year.
Like West Nile, most people that contract the virus show no signs or symptoms. If there are indicators of an infection, a doctor can confirm with a blood or urine test. Most people don’t get sick enough to go to the hospital and rarely die of Zika. Mild symptoms could last for several days to a week and may include:
• Red eyes
• Muscle pain
If a person has lived in or recently traveled to an area with risk of Zika, they should monitor for any symptoms. The virus can stay in the blood of an infected person for about a week. In addition to mosquito bites, Zika can also be transferred through blood or sexual contact. The virus is especially dangerous for pregnant women as it can pass from the mother to her fetus. Infection during pregnancy can cause severe birth defects.
At this time, there is no treatment available for Zika virus or any associated diseases. If an infected person experiences symptoms, they can use over the counter medicine as needed in addition to rest and fluids.
Other mosquito-borne viruses
Chikungunya Virus, Dengue and Malaria are examples of other mosquito-borne illnesses. Fever and pain accompany these variations, but most are not fatal. Chikungunya Virus is seen worldwide with outbreaks across the globe including in Africa, Americas, Asia and Europe. Dengue can cause fever, nausea, rash and pain. And severe dengue can be life-threatening within a few hours and requires hospital care. There have been no recorded cases of Chikungunya virus or Dengue in Louisiana to date.
Malaria, traveling from sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, can give infected persons fever, chills and other flu-like symptoms. And if left untreated, Malaria can cause severe complications and even death.
Travelers to at-risk areas are most susceptible to these illnesses. If travel to an at-risk area is required, be sure to take the appropriate precautions like using insect repellent and proper clothing coverage.
What are mosquitos attracted to?
There are a variety of reasons mosquitos are attracted to people.
Clothing. Mosquitos are drawn to darker colors like black and navy. They rely on eyesight for food and darker colors are easier to spot than lighter options.
Heat and sweat. Sweat contains various compounds that release scents favorable to mosquitos. The more sweat a person produces, the more likely they are to be bitten.
Blood type. One study by the U.S. National Institutes of Health concluded that mosquitos land on those with type O blood the most, followed by those with type A. Unique chemicals excreted through a person’s skin contribute to this favoritism.
Most people have mild reactions to mosquito bites that can easily be treated at home. Follow these recommendations.
- Wash the area with soap and water.
- Apply an ice pack to reduce swelling and help with the itching for at least 10 minutes.
- Apply a mixture of baking soda and water to help with the itch response.
- Use an over-the-counter anti-itch or antihistamine cream to again help with itching.
Children and those with immune disorders may have more serious reactions. Along with itching, symptoms can include a low-grade fever, hives, swollen lymph nodes and larger areas of swelling and redness.
Scratching mosquito bites can lead to infection. An infected bite can look red, feel warm or produce visible red streaks spreading outward from the site. Itching bites can also lead to more complex infections like impetigo (Indian fire).
Protection and Prevention
The best way to prevent a serious infection is to avoid mosquitos as much as possible and remove standing water, which is where mosquitos breed. Always be sure to:
- Empty unused swimming pools
- Change water in birdbaths or pet bowls often
- Remove any unused containers, like old tires that could hold standing water
- Unclog roof gutters
Contact with mosquitoes is almost unavoidable, especially in the late spring and summer months. However, there are things one can do to reduce exposure.
- Wear mosquito repellent on your skin and clothing anytime you go outside. Pay attention to recommendations for children. DEET-containing repellants with concentrations of 10-30% for adults and <10% for children.
- If possible, wear long-sleeved shirts and pants outside.
- Try to limit outside activity when mosquitos are most active, like at dawn, dusk and early evening.
- Cover infant strollers or playpens with mosquito netting when outside.
With a few simple preventative practices, families can enjoy the outdoors safe from the spread of mosquito-borne diseases.
For more preventative recommendations, see an Ochsner Primary Care physician today.