Mosquitoes can be a nuisance. The annoying buzzing in the ear, the nasty little bites that can itch for days. While most mosquito bites cause a localized allergic reaction, some can cause significant illness. In fact, over one million people die every year from mosquito borne illnesses.
Malaria is a huge problem world wide. In fact, it is estimated that a child dies of malaria every forty seconds. Luckily, this is not a big issue in the United States. It has been effectively controlled since the 1940s with only intermittent outbreaks that are quickly contained by aggressive mosquito control measures.
Chikungunya virus was all over the news before the recent increase in Zika virus. The main symptom of Chikungunya virus is sudden onset of high fever and debilitating joint pain that lasts weeks. The illness causes severe symptoms, but is rarely fatal. It is treated symptomatically with rest and pain control.
West Nile virus is another mosquito borne illness with which most people are familiar. There are no medications or vaccines to prevent this illness. However, most people who are infected will have no symptoms. About 1 in 5 people will develop a fever with some other mild flu-like symptoms, which can last 30-60 days. Fortunately, less than 1% of those infected will develop the most severe form of illness- West Nile Encephalitis- which affects the brain and can be fatal.
Dengue fever is another major mosquito illness, infecting over 390 million people per year. There are four strains of the virus, so people can be infected with the illness more than once, often with increasing severity. It is the leading cause of illness and death in the tropics and subtropics. There is also no prevention or treatment for Dengue. Illness ranges from asymptomatic to deadly. Supportive treatment is all that is available.
Zika virus is the current mosquito illness in the headlines. The illness cause by Zika is typically very mild with symptoms including fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis (red eyes). It usually self resolves within a week, and most people never seek medical attention or are aware they have the illness. The reason Zika virus has become so prominent in the news is that it has now been found to be the cause of a severe birth defect when a pregnant woman is infected with the virus. The birth defect is called microcephaly, which is a congenital defect of the cranium and brain size that results in profound neurological defects and often death.
Prevention is key to avoiding these mosquito borne illnesses. The number one way to prevent bites is insect repellent. Insect repellent is safe when used as directed, even for children and pregnant women. The higher the percentage of the active ingredient, the longer the protection lasts. The main insect repellents contain DEET, Picaridin, Oil of lemon eucalyptus, or IR3535. Another mainstay of protection is to cover up if weather permits. Long sleeves and pants help prevent bites. If possible, avoid being outside during dawn and dusk hours when mosquitoes are abundant. Try to keep any standing water to a minimum, as this is where mosquitoes breed. There are also multiple companies in town that will spray your yards every few weeks to keep mosquitoes at bay.
So, now that you are thoroughly scared about the mosquito bites you see on your child, what is the best thing to do? First, relax! The majority of mosquito bites are benign and cause nothing more than an annoying, itchy reaction. Over the counter hydrocortisone cream can help decrease the swelling and itchiness. If your child has more of an allergic reaction to mosquito bites and the site swells, try a dose of Benadryl to squelch the reaction in addition to the hydrocortisone cream. This should help ease their discomfort. Remember- prevention is key-but if your child is bitten, the majority of mosquito bites are an itchy nuisance!