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 getting bitten by mosquitos that carry the zika, chikungunya or dengue virus.
In which countries are you at risk?
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?
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
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:
- 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.
- Hotel with AC: Book a hotel room with screens and/or air conditioning.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
Check out these products on Amazon for some of my favourite bug-battling travel products
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.”