Protecting yourself against insects is one of the best ways to avoid illness while you travel in tropical and developing countries. Although most insect bites will only cause local skin irritation, itching, and swelling, it makes sense to be aware of the dangers.
Infected insects such as mosquitoes, ticks, fleas, and flies transmit a lot of diseases. Although there are vaccinations and preventative medications for many of these diseases, there are still several that call for other preventative measures. Some of these include Dengue Fever, West Nile Virus, African Sleeping Sickness, Sand Fly Fever, and Leishmaniasis. Most of these diseases are rare, but they are difficult to treat and sometimes fatal. This means that prevention is the best medicine.
Before you leave, research your destination to find out about the local insects and the risks of disease they present.
More often than not, mosquito bites are harmless. However, in tropical countries some mosquitoes carry vaccine-preventable diseases like Malaria, Yellow Fever, and Japanese Encephalitis. Unfortunately, they can also carry some diseases, like Dengue Fever and Zika Virus, that cannot be prevented by vaccination.
Most mosquitoes bite from dusk to dawn, although some, including those that spread Yellow Fever and Dengue Fever and the Zika Virus, bite during the day.
To avoid mosquito bites:
- Use insect repellents
- When used as directed, insect repellents are safe and effective for everyone, including pregnant and nursing women.
- Most insect repellents can be used on children. Do not use products containing oil of lemon eucalyptus in children under the age of three years.
- Repellents containing DEET, picaridin, IR3535, and some oil of lemon eucalyptus and para-menthane-diol products provide long lasting protection.
- If you use both sunscreen and insect repellent, apply the sunscreen first and then the repellent.
- Do not spray insect repellent on the skin under your clothing.
- Treat clothing with permethrin or purchase permethrin-treated clothing.
- Always follow the label instructions when using insect repellent or sunscreen.
- When weather permits, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants.
- Use air conditioning or window/door screens to keep mosquitoes outside. If you are not able to protect yourself from mosquitoes inside your home or hotel, sleep under a mosquito bed net.
- Help reduce the number of mosquitoes inside and outside your home or hotel room by emptying standing water from containers such as flowerpots or buckets.
If you are travelling with young children, use self-standing mosquito nets that can be placed over a car seat, crib, playpen, or stroller. Talk to your travel health specialist about using repellents on children if you are travelling to a high-risk destination.
Although not all ticks are harmful, some can spread serious bacterial and viral diseases. To protect yourself from tick bites:
- Wear permethrin-treated clothing. Tuck your top into your pants, and tuck your pants into your boots or socks. Wear a hat. Do not wear sandals, shorts, or short-sleeved tops. Light-colored clothing can make ticks easier to see.
- Use an insect repellent containing DEET or icariden on uncovered skin. Reapply it as directed on the container.
- Walk on cleared trails wherever possible.
- When you leave an area that ticks may inhabit, carefully check your clothing, scalp, skin, and skin folds. Have someone help you, or use a full-length-mirror.
- Check young children for ticks regularly.
- Check pets carefully if they run into tall grass and wooded areas.
- Avoid staying in poorly constructed housing such as mud, adobe, or thatch structures that use foliage for roofing.
To remove a tick:
- Use fine-tipped tweezers or a specialized tick-removal tool. Do not touch the tick with bare hands.
- Grab the tick as close as possible to where the tick’s mouth is embedded in your skin. Do not grab the tick around its swollen body which will be above your skin.
- Gently pull the tick straight out until its mouth lets go of your skin. Do not twist the tick as this could break off the tick’s body and leave the head in your skin.
- Wash the area of the tick bite with soap and water, and then wash your hands.
Bed bugs can be found in all parts of the globe. They are small, flat, reddish-brown insects that range in size from 1–7mm.
In the past decade bed bug infestations have become more common in developed countries, particularly in hotels of every class as well as in places where people congregate such as theatres, libraries, and shops. This resurgence is thought to be the result of people travelling more and bugs developing resistance to insecticides.
Although bed bugs don’t transmit disease, some people have strong allergic reactions to their bites. And they can hitch a ride on your clothes or in your suitcase. If you bring them home they can cause a lot of emotional and financial stress.
You can avoid exposure to bed bugs by taking a few prevention strategies:
- Don’t put your luggage on the bed. Use the luggage racks, or put your suitcases in the bathtub or on the bathroom counter.
- Before you unpack, inspect your room for signs of bedbugs. Bed bugs are small, but not invisible. Pull back the bed linens and examine the edges of the mattress and box spring. Look for bugs and telltale rusty brown spots of dried blood on the mattress. Carefully check the bed frame, bed head, sofa, chairs, and behind bedside tables and desks for signs of dead bugs.
- If you see anything suspicious, ask for a new room, or move to other accommodations.
- If you don’t see any signs of bedbugs but think you may be at risk:
- Continue to keep your luggage off the floor and keep it closed when you aren’t using it.
- Take clothes and personal items out of your suitcase only when you are using them.
- Inspect all items before you return them to your suitcase.
- Store your dirty clothes separately in sealed plastic bags. Wash and dry them on the hottest cycles.
- When you return home, unpack in the garage. Immediately take your clothes into the house in plastic bags and wash and dry them on the hottest cycles.
If you’re unlucky enough to be bitten, wash the bites and treat them with an antiseptic cream. Resist the urge to scratch, as scratching can lead to a secondary skin infection. If itching is intense, you may need to take an antihistamine. Bed bug bites are rarely a serious medical concern.
Not sure what bit you? Bed bug bites tend to occur in concentrated areas or in lines. Their bites take one to two days to appear.
There are dozens of insects besides mosquitoes, ticks, and bedbugs whose bites or stings can cause problems.
Biting insects like sand flies, fleas, gnats, chiggers, and mites can cause you minor discomfort and irritation if you have an allergic reaction to their saliva or anti-coagulants. But some can also infect you with serious diseases including river blindness, Chagas’ Disease, Leishmaniasis, and Elephantiasis. Fortunately, most of those diseases are relatively rare, but some are potentially fatal.
Although your risk of acquiring one of these infections is low, you can reduce it considerably by taking the same precautions you would to avoid mosquito and tick bites. And, if you are going to be camping, be absolutely sure that your tent is completely insect proof.
Stinging insects inject toxic venom as a defense mechanism. These stings can be quite painful. They can also be dangerous to someone who is allergic to an insect’s venom. Unfortunately, stinging insects are generally less sensitive to insecticides.
Most of these insects will not sting unless they are startled or attacked. If you ignore them, they will usually fly away. Don’t swat at them. If you want to get away from them, move slowly.
To avoid attracting stinging insects:
- Don’t wear perfume or scented lotions.
- Wear light-colored clothing that is not patterned.
- Be cautious when you are near flowering plants.
- Be careful when eating or drinking outdoors. Keep your beverage covered between sips.
If you have disturbed a nest or hear loud aggressive buzzing, cover your face with your hands and get out of the area as quickly as possible. Insect nesting places can include:
- Hollow trees or logs.
- Holes in the ground such as rodent burrows.
- Hanging from branches or in shrubs.
- Under piles of rocks.