I’m one of those people mosquitoes love. Whenever I visit my relatives in South Carolina or take a trip to the Jersey Shore, I—without fail—end up with itchy bites scattered along my legs and arms. They bug me (heh) to no end, but, until recently, I’ve shrugged off how pathogenic these pests can be.
After reading that a handful of people contracted malaria—a mosquito-borne disease caused by a parasite—locally in Florida and Texas, it’s become clear that I can’t continue to ignore the threat mosquitoes pose to human health. The cases were unrelated to one another, and they’re particularly alarming because this is the first time there’s been an outbreak in the US in two decades (though the risk is still low).
There are tons of diseases these little vampires can transmit to humans, including in the United States, where Zika and West Nile virus are known to spread. Elsewhere, dengue, yellow fever, chikungunya, and malaria can affect travelers or people who live in places where they’re prevalent. Estimates suggest that fewer than 10% of mosquitoes are capable of spreading pathogens that can make people sick, but being around them sans protection is a serious gamble. Most cases of these illnesses start with flu-like symptoms—fever, chills, and headache—but some severe infections can lead to serious complications in some people. And look: Even when they don’t spread serious diseases, mosquito bites suck, especially for people who have gnarly allergic reactions to them.
Daniel Pastula, MD, MHS, chief of neuroinfectious diseases and global neurology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, tells SELF that mosquitoes are one of the most dangerous-to-humans animals out there. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), they kill more people than any other creature (that’s right—they’re actually scarier than bears, snakes, or sharks, when you think about it). “They’re flying needles that drink up blood—and, potentially, make us sick,” Dr. Pastula says. They’re a massive public health problem—and, because of warming temperatures associated with climate change, it’s only getting worse: Mosquitoes are living longer, biting more, and invading areas where they historically haven’t resided before.
We have vaccines for some mosquito-borne illnesses, like Japanese encephalitis, and there are preventative malaria pills you can take before and during travel to destinations where you’re especially at risk of contracting the disease, but we don’t have medicines to protect us against most of the illnesses these flying dangers can give us, making mosquito-bite prevention super important. Fortunately, warding off these bugs is pretty simple—here’s how to go about it.
Know when mosquitoes are most active in your area—and make a game plan.
Mosquitoes can be found pretty much everywhere, says Dr. Pastula, and specific kinds thrive in different environments. For example, you don’t need to worry about mosquitoes tearing up your legs if you’re in Colorado in February—but if you take a summer trip to Florida, you may want to up your prevention game: The species that spread diseases like chikungunya, dengue, Zika, and West Nile may be buzzing around.
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