Focus on Your Health
By Dr. Brent W. Laartz
It’s likely that itchy bump on your child’s arm is nothing much to worry about. Most mosquito bites are harmless, and the symptoms will subside in a few days.
Still, if you’re a parent who pays attention to news about mosquito-borne illnesses, it’s hard not to be concerned. A year ago, the Zika virus dominated U.S. headlines. In 2014, it was Chikungunya Fever, and West Nile Fever before that.
“Nothing spreads faster across most of the world than a mosquito-borne virus,” says Dr. Brent W. Laartz, a board-certified infectious diseases specialist and author of How to Avoid Contagious Diseases (www.drlaartz.com). “It seems we just become accustomed to diagnosing one virus when the next one is discovered.”
And though fears die down in the fall and winter, when mosquitoes disappear in most of the U.S., the threat never really goes away.
Predictions of a massive Zika outbreak in the U.S. were especially alarming because it is associated with a birth defect called microcephaly. There’s also concern because the virus can be transmitted through sex.
“All it takes is one person to return from the Caribbean or Asia with Zika virus in their bloodstream to infect a mosquito, which then will carry it to many others, especially in Southern states,” Laartz says.
The symptoms of Zika, Chikungunya, Dengue and a few other mosquito-borne viruses are similar, and can include muscle and joint pain, fever, headache, red eyes and a rash. Zika symptoms usually clear up in less than a week, are mild, and rarely require hospitalization, according to www.healthychildren.org. And only 1 in 5 of those infected will have symptoms. But what parent wants to play the odds?
Here are Laartz’s tips for protecting children against mosquito bites and mosquito-borne illness:
- Cover as much of your skin as possible. “All it takes is a small amount of skin exposure for a mosquito to land and start feeding,” Laartz says. If it’s too hot to cover up with long sleeves and long pants, apply an EPA-rated repellant to skin and clothes. The repellant should have DEET with a 25 percent concentration, he says.
- Use sunscreen first, then repellant. If you can’t find a product with both sun and insect protection, use sunscreen first, let it dry and then apply the repellant, Laartz advises. (Sunscreens can inactivate repellants.) Keep the product away from your eyes and mouth, and take special care with small children. Do not use insect repellent on babies younger than 2 months old; cover your crib, stroller and baby carrier with mosquito netting.
- Don’t count on treated wristbands and stickers for complete control. They should be coupled with repellant, Laartz says. And wear protection all day. “The mosquito that carries the Zika and Chikungunya viruses bites during the day and lives closer to human dwellings,” Laartz says. “It also bites multiple times and bites multiple people, so it can spread these viruses more rapidly.”
In March, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases entered the second phase of clinical trial for a Zika vaccine. But it could take years before it’s declared effective and safe enough to be used in the U.S.
For now, Laartz says, mosquito avoidance is the mainstay of prevention.
About Dr. Brent W. Laartz
Dr. Brent W. Laartz (www.drlaartz.com), author of How to Avoid Contagious Diseases, is a board-certified infectious diseases specialist in Safety Harbor, FL., with years of experience in infection control at hospitals, nursing facilities, rehab facilities and outpatient clinics. He graduated with his BA and MS degrees from Northwestern University and his MD degree from the University of Iowa. He finished his training in Tampa, where he completed a residency in internal medicine and a fellowship in infectious diseases and tropical medicine at the University of South Florida.