Summer is finally here! It’s time to spend time outside – in your backyard, at the park, in the forest preserves, or around the campfire. It’s lots of fun until you hear a high pitched buzz and feel the sting as a mosquito bites you. In most cases mosquitos and their bites are just a nuisance. Itchy pink bumps on your arm, maybe a little localized swelling, and then in a few days to a week they’re gone. No big deal. Certain types of mosquitos, however, can spread disease. We are fortunate to live in an area of the world where we don’t see a lot of mosquito-borne illnesses, but we do see a few here in Illinois – most notably the West Nile virus.
West Nile virus was first discovered in the United States in 1999 and first identified in Illinois in 2001. For the most part, West Nile is passed back and forth between mosquitoes and birds. Occasionally, though, an infected mosquito bites and infects a human (or a horse or other mammal). Not all types of mosquitos in Illinois carry West Nile. It is primarily transmitted by the house mosquito (Culex Pipiens). They typically bite at dusk and after dark. During the day they rest in and around structures and vegetation.
What happens when you get bitten by a mosquito infected with the West Nile virus? There’s a good chance nothing. Most people (about 70-80%) infected with the West Nile virus will have no symptoms. About 1 in 5 people will develop a moderate illness including:
- Body aches
- Joint pains
These symptoms will completely resolve but some fatigue and weakness can last for weeks or months. Less than 1% of people infected will develop a serious and potentially fatal neurologic illness like encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) or meningitis (inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain). While serious illness can occur in someone of any age, people over 60 years of age and those who are immunocompromised are at greater risk for severe disease.
There is no vaccine or specific antiviral medication to prevent/treat West Nile virus infection. Treatment is geared towards helping alleviate the symptoms – including over the counter pain and fever reducers. Severe cases require hospitalization.
What’s the best way to avoid getting West Nile virus? Don’t get bitten by mosquitos. Here’s what you can do:
- Wear insect repellent. (I’m going to spend a little time on this point because we get a lot of questions regarding insect repellents.)
- Current American Academy of Pediatrics and Centers for Disease Control recommendations for children older than 2 months of age is to use 10% to 30% DEET or picaridin in a concentration of 5-10% (higher percentage provides longer lasting protection).
- Repellents with IR3535 or oil of lemon eucalyptus are also safe and effective in repelling mosquitos although oil of lemon eucalyptus should not be used in children younger than 3 years of age.
- Check the bottle for EPA approval – this means the product has been reviewed and approved for human safety and effectiveness by the Environmental Protection Agency.
- Always follow the directions for how to apply.
- Never let children apply repellent themselves.
- Do not apply to children’s hands or the areas around the mouth and eyes.
- Do not spray repellent under clothing.
- Bathe your child and wash clothing after returning indoors.
- Avoid sunscreen/insect repellant combinations – sunscreen needs to be reapplied multiple times – insect repellent does not.
- For infants under 2 months of age, drape mosquito netting over their carrier or car seat or, better yet, keep them indoors between dusk and dawn.
- Don’t use scented soaps, perfumes, lotions or hairspray on your child.
- When outside in the evenings or in heavily wooded areas – cover up with light colored long sleeved shirts, pants, and socks.
How can you reduce the number of mosquitos in and around your home?
- Make sure screens on windows and doors have no holes and are in good repair.
- Eliminate all standing water from your yard. Mosquitoes lay their eggs in stagnant water.
- Empty standing water from flowerpots, gutters, flat roofs, buckets, pool covers, discarded tires and pet water dishes regularly
- Empty plastic wading pools and birdbaths at least once a week
- Keep rain barrels and trash containers tightly covered with a lid
- Fill in tree rot holes and hollow stumps that hold water
- Keep weeds and tall grass cut short – adult mosquitos like to rest in shady places during hot daylight hours
- Support your local mosquito abatement efforts
Now get outside and enjoy summer!
A word about Zika:
Zika disease is caused by the Zika virus which, like the West Nile virus, is a mosquito-borne illness. It is spread to people primarily through the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. As of June 1, 2016 there have not been any locally acquired Zika virus disease cases reported in the continental US. There have been travel-associated cases. The most common symptoms of Zika are fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis (red eyes). About 1 in 5 of those infected with the Zika virus will have symptoms. Those who do have symptoms usually recover within a week and rarely need hospitalization. The reason Zika has been of such great concern is due to the fact that the virus has been associated with microcephaly (abnormally small head) and other brain abnormalities in infants born to mothers who were infected with the virus. Infection with the Zika virus around the time of birth or early childhood has not been linked to microcephaly. The CDC is not able to predict if Zika virus will spread to the continental US – however areas with past outbreaks of other mosquito borne illnesses carried by the Aedes species mosquito are at higher risk for Zika. This includes US territories like Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands and Guam as well as Hawaii, Florida and Texas. If you are planning to travel to the Caribbean, Central or South America or the Pacific islands or if you’re interested in learning more about Zika – check out www.cdc.gov.
www.dph.illinois.gov – Illinois Department of Health
Written by: Dr. Jessica Grygotis