Avoiding mosquitos this summer is about more than preventing itchy bumps. It’s about preventing serious disease.
Americans in certain parts of the U.S. should be on higher alert than usual about mosquitos because of the ongoing Zika virus epidemic in Latin America and the Caribbean, experts say. And while the highest risk zones are in Florida and Texas, more of the U.S. may be at risk.
The world’s scientists generally agree that the mosquito-borne virus can cause severe birth defects like microcephaly. And scientists such as Anthony Cornel, a medical entomologist at the University of California, Davis, say that the Zika virus outbreaks in nearby parts of the world should make people in high-risk mosquito zones in the U.S. more vigilant about repelling bites. Zika is primarily transmitted by the Aedes Aegypti mosquito, which has been spotted as far north as New York.
"With the impending threat of Zika and possibly chikungunya [a similar virus carried by the same mosquito], people need to be more aware of the presence of Aedes Aegypti, because that’s the major vector,” Cornel said. "We don't know, of course, if we’re going to get local transmission of these viruses, but the threat is there, and the threat is now increasing because of the spread of the mosquito."
Researchers from the University of Arizona, the National Center for Atmospheric Research and other institutions put together a map of where the Aedes Aegypti mosquito live in the U.S:
How likely is local Zika virus spread in the U.S.?
The Aedes Aegypti mosquito doesn't inherently carry Zika virus, but instead passes the virus from sick people to others. Female mosquitoes need blood to lay their eggs, and when they bite someone infected with Zika virus, they can pass on the disease to other people in later bites. The U.S. does not have any recorded cases of this kind of "local" Zika virus transmission, just cases of people bringing the disease back after traveling.
This means most Americans have nothing to worry about when it comes to local Zika virus transmission. But because more than 300 people have brought Zika virus back from a trip, and some of them may live in areas where the Aedes Aegypti breed and are projected to thrive this year, there is a risk that Zika virus may become endemic in the U.S.
What you can do to prevent mosquito bites
To start preparing for mosquito season, assess your personal mosquito risk. Ask yourself these three questions to make sure you know how to prevent bites:
1. Are you a mosquito magnet?
It's not your imagination: Some people do get bitten more than others. A small 2015 pilot study comparing identical twins to fraternal twins found that mosquitoes were similarly attracted to identical twins, but approached fraternal twins at different rates. These findings establish a genetic basis for varying levels of mosquito attractiveness.
Mosquitos also appear to be more attracted to some body odors over others, and research points to different potential reasons for this. A 2011 study found that the bacteria on one's skin could be affecting odor and thus mosquito attractiveness. Another theory, put forth in 2013, is that mosquitos have exceptionally sensitive ways to detect carbon dioxide, and can even detect CO2 from our skin’s surfaces. If you already know from past experience that you tend to get bitten more than the people around you, be vigilant.
2. What kind of mosquito repellant do you have?
Wear long sleeves and pants and use insect repellant with the active ingredients DEET, Picaridin, IR3535 or oil of lemon eucalyptus. Campers and travelers can also go one step further by treating their clothes, tents and gear with a product called permethrin, which is another strong option against mosquitoes.
These repellents are also safe for pregnant and nursing women, and most children over two months old notes the CDC, but children under three years old should not use products with oil of lemon eucalyptus or its synthetic version, PMD. To protect children younger than two months, place them in an infant carrier covered with a mosquito net with an elastic edge.
Unfortunately, the strategy of eating certain foods to repel mosquitoes doesn’t hold up in scientific experimentation. A randomized, double-blinded and placebo-controlled trial found that eating garlic didn’t repel them. Another 2005 trial confirmed that vitamin B supplements don’t help, either. Drinking beer makes people more attractive to mosquitoes, so take that into account when you’re hanging by the campfire.
3. Is there standing water near your house?
If you've got a persistent mosquito problem where you live, take a walk around your property to see if there are any pools of standing water in trash, containers or other objects that could potentially harbor mosquito larvae.
And if mosquitos are a particular nuisance where you live, set some traps. You can make your own, but for professional help, contact your local mosquito control authority or your department of public health. Low-risk areas of the country may not have a dedicated anti-mosquito taskforce, but those that do may be able to make house calls to assess your property’s risk.
Finally, because the Aedes Aegypti loves living indoors with humans, be sure to check that all your doors and windows are properly screened. Otherwise, keep doors and windows shut tight and keep cool with fans and air conditioning.