12 ways to protect yourself from zika, chikungunya or dengue virus

It’s not very often that I find similarities between my in-laws in Guatemala and Hollywood actress Lindsay Lohan. But last winter, they were all hit by chikungunya, the mosquito-borne virus that causes severe fevers, headache and joint pain. Unlike dengue (which can sometimes be fatal) or zika (which causes birth defects) caused by the same kind of mosquito, chikungunya (pronounced chik-en-gun-ye) is usually not fatal but the joint pain can be debilitating and can linger for months. There is no vaccine or cure. But you can protect yourself from the mosquitos that carry the zika, chikungunya or dengue virus.

In which countries are you at risk?

chikungunya

Geographic distribution of reported cases of chikungunya Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Although Lindsay Lohan picked up the virus in Bora Bora, more than 1.2 million suspected cases have been identified in 44 countries throughout the Americas. Travellers who go to Africa, Asia, parts of Central and South America, and islands in the Indian Ocean, Western and South Pacific, and Caribbean are at risk. As shown on the above map, all reported cases in the United States occurred among travellers returning from affected areas.  If you’re planning a sun destination vacation, you should check the Center for Disease Control for the latest news on outbreaks in your destination and review their precautions.

Who is most at risk?

Are you a mosquito-magnet? Do other people never seem to get bitten yet you come home covered in welts? You’re not alone. Science has proven that 20% of the population is more attractive to mosquitos than others. This includes people with Type O blood, beer-drinkers, females and other more mysterious factors. The CDC advises travellers in high-risk groups to discuss travel plans with their health care provider. High-risk groups include the following:

  • People who have arthritis
  • People with serious underlying medical conditions (such as high blood pressure, heart disease, or diabetes)
  • People older than 65
  • Women who are late in their pregnancies, because of the risk to babies born at the time their mother is sick
  • Long-term travellers, including missionaries and humanitarian aid workers and people visiting friends and relatives
  • People who might have difficulty avoiding mosquito bites, such as those planning to spend a lot of time outdoors or staying in rooms without window screens or air conditioning.

How do you get infected by chikungunya, dengue and zika?

Aedes aegypti mosquito

The nasty Aedes aegypti mosquito

Chikungunya virus ( as well as dengue and zika)  is transmitted to humans through the bites of infected mosquitoes, primarily the Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquito. The best way to avoid contracting chikungunya (or dengue and zika) is to avoid getting bitten by mosquitos. The CDC has some excellent Tips on Avoiding Mosquito Bites  but check out my tips below too.

12 Ways to Protect Yourself from Chikungunya, Dengue or Zika

Dressed for mosquito combat in Guatemala

Dressed for mosquito combat in Guatemala

A few years ago, I survived a terrible bout of dengue in Guatemala, so I now take extra precautions to avoid getting bitten by mosquitos when I travel. Here are my tips:

      1. Long-sleeved clothing: Wear long sleeved shirts and pants, preferably light-coloured (not like the clothes I’m wearing in above photo which were not only hot but attracted mosquitos). It may seem strange to be wearing pants or long sleeves when its 40C but at least your skin will be protected.
      2. Hotel with AC: Book a hotel room with screens and/or air conditioning.
      3. Eliminate breeding spots: If you’re staying with family or have any control over your surroundings such as a long-term vacation rental, eliminate (or disinfect) standing water in receptacles such as pails, flower pots, buckets, old tires etc.
      4. Be prepared:  The Aedes aegypti mosquito is a day-biting, urban mosquito. This means you can get bitten while lounging obliviously at the airport, hanging out at a cafe at noon or even downward-dogging it in yoga class. Don’t think you’re only at risk when you’re in the jungle or remote areas.
      5. Duct tape:  I always travel with a roll of duct tape and use it to seal large gaps in doors or windows.  Admittedly this can be a rather time-consuming (and noisy  task with all that ripping sound of tape) but there’s something satisfying about waking up  in the morning and seeing all those insects trapped on the outside of the door. Just think of all the bites you avoided! Of course, if you seal yourself into your room and then decide to go out again, well you’ve got to begin the process all over again. As my travel pal and Vancouver blogger, Colleen Friesen noted one evening in Mexico, as I taped up all the exits in our condo “I guess this means we’re in for the night.”
      6. Plug-in Bug Zapper: When you arrive at your destination (and before you tape yourself in), head to a store like Super Che and purchase a box of Raid Laminitas. See the photo of this handy mosquito-blaster in the shopping list below.  In Mexico, one box costs less than $10 and will last for several weeks. Use laminitas like an air freshener. Just insert the blue pad inside the device, plug it into an electric outlet and leave the room for 30 minutes. When you return, the mosquitos will be gone. The laminitas also get rid of tiny gnats which, although not dangerous, can cause annoying welts and intense itching. The instructions say you can leave laminitas plugged in all night but I probably wouldn’t do that if you have asthma or other respiratory issues.
      7. Insect repellent: Use insect repellent with DEET. This isn’t the time to use gentle natural repellents. Although you’re not allowed to take aerosol cans on airplanes, purchase the small purse or pocket-sized pump bottles at your local pharmacy (or online) and take them in your carry-on bag. Apply repellent as soon as you arrive,  as you’ll often encounter mosquitos at airports or enroute to your hotel.
      8. Install a fan: Once at your hotel, request a portable fan for your room and direct the air flow towards yourself, your bed or patio.
      9. Mosquito net: Use a mosquito net if there is one. If not, you can always purchase a traveller’s mosquito net and take it with you. The portable mosquito nets come with an adjustable string and a ring to attach to the ceiling.
      10. Pack Tylenol:  If you do have the misfortunate of getting either virus, it’s the recommended pain medication to take. I didn’t know that. So when I got hit with dengue I began dosing myself with aspirin and this caused added complications.
      11. Wear bug-repellent clothing: Treat your clothing or purchase clothing pretreated with Permethrin.It’s as effective as 100 percent DEET and not only repels insects, it actually kills ticks, mosquitoes, chiggers, mites, and more than 55 other kinds of insects on contact. The active ingredient Permethrin is a synthetic molecule similar to pyrethrum which is taken from the Chrysanthemum flower. A single application lasts six washings or 42 days of sun exposure. Do not use the solution on your skin.
      12. Extras: Other ideas include purchasing Vitamin B patches or  insect repellent bracelets to wear as extra protection. Another natural remedy involves using papaya leaf extract to prevent and treat dengue fever.

Best Anti-Mosquito Shopping List Ever 

a box of laminatas repellent

I use these two varieties of laminitas when I travel

Check out this Amazon slideshow for some of my favourite bug-battling travel products

Travel Planner

For more safety tips on travel in Guatemala, read the post 16 Safety Tips for Travel in Guatemala

Note: The above information is no substitute for medical advice! You should contact a medical professional should you feel ill when travelling or before international travel.

Do you have any tips or suggestions about avoiding mosquito bites or mosquito-borne viruses? Have you ever had dengue fever, zika or chikungunya? Please let us know by adding your comments below!

If you’re curious about what it feels like to get dengue fever, subscribe to the A Taste for Travel newsletter and you’ll be the first to receive a copy of the upcoming post ” How I Survived Dengue Fever.

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Showing 28 comments
  • Amanda Williams
    Reply

    A really useful post. Thanks for sharing. I’ve travelled a fair bit in Africa and hadn’t even heard of this. Another good reason to protect yourself from those pesky biting insects! Thanks again, Amanda

  • Beatríz
    Reply

    We really appreciate because not only traveler can be infected with this virus, locals in all Central and South America are in risk too!

    • Michele Peterson
      Reply

      Thanks for stopping by Beatriz! I’m glad to hear you think this info would be helpful to locals too!

  • Alexa Meisler
    Reply

    Michele, as always a brilliant article. I have never heard of chikungunya & I just returned from the Yucatan. Wish I read this before I left. I have also never thought of traveling with duct tape. Genius! Love all the tips.

  • Tami
    Reply

    I hate mosquito bites anyway. And the hate would be compounded a hundredfold if I caught that “ch” virus you mentioned!!! Thanks for the tips!

  • Kathy Marris
    Reply

    I have never heard of this virus and I was visiting these countries earlier this year on a cruise. We never really ventured into jungle areas and I don’t think I saw any mosquitoes at all. Thanks for this info. 🙂

    • Michele Peterson
      Reply

      Yes, I think the flying range of a mosquito is limited so it’s likely none would make it as far as a cruise ship, thankfully.

  • Paula McInerney
    Reply

    I have never heard of chikungunya fever but this is great information. The connection between your in-laws in Guatemala and Hollywood actress Lindsay Lohan was a great start to the post

  • budget jan
    Reply

    I live in North Queensland where dengue fever is also a problem. Nice drawings of the The nasty Aedes aegypti mosquito.

  • Lyndall
    Reply

    Thanks for the great mosquito-beating tips Michele! I love the duct tape suggestion 🙂

  • Rachel Heller
    Reply

    I’ve never heard of chikungunya despite my travel in Africa! But I did most of these things anyway to avoid getting malaria. Often, though, we’d go low-tech. Before going to bed we’d shut all the windows and then my husband would do a round of the room using a fly-swatter. Then we’d sleep under a mosquito net, of course.

  • Donna Janke
    Reply

    I have never heard of chikungunya. Thanks for the information. I am one of those people that mosquitoes seem to especially like so it is good to be forewarned.

  • Wandering Carol
    Reply

    As if malaria and dengue weren’t enough to worry about! I didn’t realize this was caused by a daytime mosquito – good to know. Thanks.

  • Irene S. Levine
    Reply

    I seem to be a mosquito magnet so I really appreciated these tips! The risk of chikungunya makes matters worse. I heard that this year, Delhi is having its worst outbreak of Dengue ever.

  • Kay Dougherty
    Reply

    My sister and I are going to Puerto Vallarta and Cartagena this month so this is a good reminder to do whatever we can to avoid getting chikungunya. She has a compromised immune system from many years of being on antibiotics for a bacterial lung disease so is very vulnerable to almost everything. It never occurred to me – for some reason – that I need to be aware of fending off mosquitoes in airports!

  • Carole Terwilliger Meyers
    Reply

    I will want to refer back to this article when I travel to mosquito areas. I am most intrigued by the plug-in bug zapper and Raid Laminitas. These illnesses are nothing to fool around with.

  • The GypsyNesters
    Reply

    Great tips. Had dengue in the Virgin Islands a few years ago and it is no fun so avoiding the bites is very important. Thanks.

  • [email protected]
    Reply

    A great post Michele. After seeing a friend suffer from a bad bout of Dengue caught in Bali, I definitely do not want to suffer the same fate. For a while there, we actually thought she might have had Chikungunya! People forget that this mosquito is active during the day.

  • Betsy Wuebker | PassingThru
    Reply

    Acckkk!!! I’ve never heard of Chikungunya virus! And here we are smack dab in the middle of Thailand. Interesting that beer drinkers are more attractive to the little buggers. I’ll have to have a word with Pete. 😉

  • Nancie
    Reply

    I’m one of the lucky ones that mosquitoes, for the most part, leave alone. When I went into the jungle in Borneo I slathered myself with lotion version of OFF. I was the only one in my group who left the jungle with virtually no bites.

  • Patrice Perillie
    Reply

    HI Michele, check out this website www.macmed.com to order a very effective herbal preventative and remedy for chickunguya being produced in Puerto from the leaves of 5 local trees. Stay healthy and happy!

    • Michele Peterson
      Reply

      Thanks Patrice! I’ll check it out. I wonder what trees it’s made from? I wish I could get it before my trip to Guatemala!

  • Nathalie
    Reply

    Great, useful post on how to protect yourself from a virus most people don’t know about, including me! Thanks.

  • Sue Reddel
    Reply

    As someone who travels regularly with a partner who not only attracts mosquitos but is highly allergic. She’s in that 20%. We’ve used all your recommendations except the duct tape, which is brilliant. We’ve stuffed towels under the door frame which is usually has a big gap. And you’re right I survived a week in Cuba with no bites and got two bites in the airport on the way out. Go figure.

  • Patti Morrow
    Reply

    Thanks for the tips on how to avoid the chikungunya virus. Mosquitos love me for some reason, so I have to take extra precautions because I frequently travel to tropical destinations.

  • Michele {Malaysian Meanders}
    Reply

    Great advice. I’ve had Chikungunya, and it was HORRIBLE. It really knocked me out, the rash from bursting blood vessels hurt whenever I tried to use my hands, and I ached soooo much. Luckily, I’ve read that once you get it, you’re immune for the rest of your life. Where I lived in Malaysia was also have a dengue problem at the time, so they initially diagnosed me as having hemorrhagic dengue. The chikungunya diagnosis was actually a relief.

    • Michele Peterson
      Reply

      That’s horrible! It sounds like you really suffered. Glad to hear you finally did recover!

  • Doreen Pendgracs
    Reply

    Terrific post, Michele. I learned a lot about mosquito protection and bite prevention.

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