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Dec. 1, 2016

Hardly anyone can get through a summer season without getting a few mosquito bites — especially in the South and Gulf Coast states.

Mosquito bites are definitely annoying and have the potential to be harmful. Mosquitos can spread viral, bacterial, or parasitic diseases to anyone, young and old, through their bites.

People most at risk for mosquito-borne viruses live in tropical or rural areas, including areas with heavy rainfall, near lakes, streams, ponds or marshes. Also at risk: Anyone who travels to Mexico, Puerto Rico, Central America, South America, the Caribbean, West and Central Africa, and certain Pacific Islands where these diseases occur more frequently.

The mosquito-borne disease making headlines right now is the Zika virus. The Zika virus most commonly is transmitted through the bite of an infected Aedes mosquito. While only a few cases have been reported in the United States at this time, the Zika virus is concerning because it has been linked to serious birth defects in babies born to mothers infected with the virus. One condition caused by the virus is microcephaly, in which the baby’s head doesn’t grow because the brain stops growing in the mother’s uterus.

The Zika virus is hard to detect and diagnose. About 1 in 5 people who contract the Zika virus have little or no symptoms. The symptoms — fever, rash, joint and muscle pain, and conjunctivitis (pink eye)—often are very mild, so people don’t realize they have the virus and don’t seek medical attention. This makes it very hard to track while the Zika virus is spreading from one person to another. At this time, there is no vaccine for the Zika virus.

Zika virus is far from the only disease spread by mosquitos. Malaria, Dengue, West Nile Virus and Chikungunya have more noticeable symptoms than the Zika virus. The vast majority of people (75 to 95 percent) who contract those diseases will have symptoms such as high fever, a bad headache and joint and muscle pain, extreme fatigue, and sometimes skin rashes, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice).

Some of these symptoms, like joint pain, can last weeks, or even months. Additionally, Malaria, Dengue, West Nile, and Chikungunya can be very serious or deadly, especially in people over 65. Like Zika, there are no vaccines for these viruses.

You can prevent yourself from becoming infected by Zika or other mosquito-borne viruses by protecting yourself from mosquito bites. Some prevention tips include:

  • Wear long-sleeved shirts, hats, and pants when going outdoors.
  • Wear an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered insect repellant when outside (be sure to follow the directions on the can or bottle).
  • Put screens on windows and doors.
  • Put a mosquito net over your bed while you sleep if you have open windows in your house.
  • Empty sources of standing water around your yard and house, such as flower pots, bird baths, children’s pools, and other containers. Check anything that could collect water, such as tires, shoes, gardening equipment, and pet bowls.
  • Eliminate or dry out puddles that collect around your yard and house.

Being aware of your health and your surroundings is the best way to avoid getting very sick or helping spread Zika or another mosquito-borne virus. Please call your doctor is you are not feeling well, or have recently traveled to an area that has been affected by these diseases. Always see your doctor at least once a year for a complete physical exam to keep you healthy.

Dr. Mario Siervo serves as Medical Director of the Miami market for WellMed Medical Group. A native of Miami, Florida, he graduated from New York Medical College and completed his residency in family medicine at Florida Hospital, Orlando.

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