Physician Offers Tips to Prevent, Detect Mosquito-borne Illnesses

SPRINGFIELD — The buzz of mosquitoes is more than just a nuisance in Massachusetts; their bites can also transmit diseases, such as the West Nile virus and eastern equine encephalitis. Overall, the mosquito is ranked as the deadliest creature on earth due to the diseases it can carry, which worldwide also include malaria, dengue fever, and the Zika virus. That’s why prevention is key, as is an understanding of the symptoms that might indicate an infection.

“Not all mosquitoes carry disease, but the potential is there,” said Dr. Andrew Koslow, associate medical director of American Family Care (AFC) in Massachusetts. “The types of illnesses mosquitoes transmit vary by geography, so it’s best to take preventive steps, whether you are home or traveling.”

Koslow said using a mosquito repellent is one of the most effective tactics to deter bites. “Choose a product that contains DEET, oil of lemon eucalyptus (PMD), BioUD, or picaridin, and follow the directions for application, as well as any warnings on the package. Use it especially when you are in higher-risk situations, such as being outside in an area with a high mosquito population, being near stagnant water, or being outside between dusk and dawn, when mosquitoes are most active.”

Because mosquitoes prefer to bite bare skin, wearing loose-fitting, long sleeves and pants can be a determent, although it is possible for mosquitoes to bite through fabric. Some plants and other products and environmental treatments can also help with mosquito control in outdoor spaces. Eliminate standing water on the property, which provides an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes, and repair any holes in window and door screens.

“Because a relatively small number of mosquitoes in our area carry disease, there is no need to panic if you are bitten,” Koslow said. “Wash the area with soap and water, and apply an ice pack to help reduce swelling. A paste made of baking soda and water or an over-the-counter itch cream can help with itching. For multiple bites or more severe symptoms, an oral antihistamine can be used.”

Koslow noted that it’s important to avoid scratching mosquito bites to prevent a localized skin infection. “If the bitten area gets worse over the following few days — if there is worsening redness, pain, heat, or a red streak extending from the bite — see a healthcare professional right away for evaluation and treatment. The bite may be infected, and it can be difficult to tell a strong reaction to the bite itself from an infection on your own. Also, severe allergic reactions, while rare, are possible.”

Meanwhile, although it is uncommon, mosquitoes can transmit dangerous viruses. People infected with the West Nile virus often have no symptoms, but some experience fever, fatigue, head and body aches, nausea, vomiting, or a rash on the chest, back, and/or arms. The first symptoms of eastern equine encephalitis (EEE), which is much rarer, appear within three to 10 days of a bite from an infected mosquito and can include a high fever, nausea and vomiting, stiff neck, headache, and fatigue.

“Both of these diseases, especially EEE, can progress to more serious symptoms, including brain infection and death, so see a medical professional right away if you experience any of these symptoms after a mosquito bite,” Koslow said. “While there is no specific treatment for either infection, supportive care may be lifesaving.”