Health & Fitness

Mosquito bites more than just annoying — can cause serious illness

A female Aedes aegypti mosquito, which can carry Zika and dengue.
A female Aedes aegypti mosquito, which can carry Zika and dengue. Miami Herald File

Summer in Florida is hot, sticky and mosquito heaven. Whether you and your kids are staying home or traveling to a tropical area, you need to plan for health-related risks, including being prepared for bug bites.

MOSQUITO ILLNESSES

Mosquito bites can be more than just annoying and itchy; they can make you really sick. The most common diseases caused by mosquito bites in the Americas include dengue, chikungunya, Zika and malaria. All of these diseases can produce high fever, joint pain, skin rashes and headaches a few weeks after being bitten by an infected mosquito. Although each disease has unique characteristics, many times it is impossible to differentiate one from the other, and only specialized testing can give a final answer.

Malaria or dengue infections can be fatal. Chikungunya can cause severe joint pain for a long period of time, and the Zika virus can disrupt the normal brain development of fetuses when women acquire the disease during pregnancy. Zika has been also associated with a paralysis of the muscles called Guillain-Barre syndrome.

Most of these conditions don’t have a specific treatment or preventive medication, and none of them have a vaccine that can prevent the infection. At this point the best way to prevent these diseases is to avoid mosquito bites.

MOSQUITO PREVENTION

Aedes aegipty, the mosquito that causes dengue, chikungunya and Zika, lives in tropical areas, including South Florida. The mosquito lives in cities, feeds during daytime and lays its eggs in places where water collects, such as in flower pots and buckets. The mosquito becomes a carrier of these illnesses after biting someone who is infected with dengue, chikungunya or Zika.

Anyone is at risk from a bite from Aedes aegipty and may have long-term consequences if infected. To avoid mosquito bites, wear insect repellent at all times, especially when outside or indoors if there is no air conditioning and unscreened windows. Remember to apply repellent 15 minutes after applying sunblock because sunscreens can make mosquito repellent ineffective. Use an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) registered insect repellent with DEET, Picardin, oil of lemon eucalyptus or IR35335. All of these chemicals are safe for kids older than 2 months, as well as pregnant or breastfeeding women.

You should wear long clothing when outside. While that might be uncomfortable due to the warm weather, it will protect your arms and legs from bites.

You and your family can also prevent mosquito bites by preventing the spread of mosquitos. Look for areas around your home where stagnant water has become trapped and pooled. Empty water trapped in containers once a week (that’s the period it takes for a mosquito egg to hatch).

ZIKA PREVENTION

There is an active outbreak of Zika in the Americas. Given the potential for severe brain problems for a fetus, experts recommend that pregnant women at any stage of pregnancy, or women planning to become pregnant, avoid traveling to areas where the infection has been documented, such as the Caribbean and South America. Male sexual partners of pregnant women should abstain from sexual activity or use condoms because Zika can be transmitted by sexual contact.

There have been no locally acquired infections reported in the United States, with the exception of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. But because the Aedes aegypti mosquito lives in Florida, there is a risk for a possible outbreak of locally acquired infections in the future. In previous years, cases of dengue and chikungunya were acquired locally, so it is reasonable to expect that Zika will also become a locally acquired issue.

While only 20 percent of those who contract Zika exhibit symptoms, be on the lookout for fever, rash, joint pain and red eyes. If you suspect you or your child have contracted Zika, contact your doctor.

While this latest mosquito-borne illness is scary, there is no need to panic. You don’t need to cancel your travel plans or stay indoors. You just need to be smart and anticipate potential mosquito hazards. Both the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have websites dedicated to Zika and other mosquito illnesses that can answer more of your questions, both regionally and worldwide. With a little extra thought and preparation, we can all help prevent the spread of short-term itchy mosquito bites and their long-term medical consequences.

Paola Lichtenberger, M.D., is a specialist in infectious disease and tropical medicine at UHealth – the University of Miami Health System. For more information, visit UHealthSystem.com/patients/pediatrics.

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