Before You Travel: What to Know About Protecting Yourself From Zika Virus

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Zika virus is spreading rapidly. Although it’s been around for a long time, particularly in parts of Asia and Africa, a recent outbreak is quickly moving across Mexico, Central and South America. And now Zika has shown up in the United States — in California and Texas.

The World Health Organization has declared a global health emergency. Because of disturbing correlations between Zika and serious birth defects, among other problems, the American College of Gynecologists and Obstetricians recommends that pregnant women (in any trimester) or those considering becoming pregnant avoid traveling where Zika is active.

Before you travel — especially if you are pregnant — arm yourself with information and these tips:

Zika fever

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a map of countries affected by Zika. But travelers looking for specifics about the disease at their destination are in for frustration. There is little information available locally where Zika virus transmission is prevalent. And the epidemic is changing rapidly. And so, if you have plans to travel where Zika or other mosquito-borne diseases are active, first assess your risk. If you go, have a plan and supplies to protect yourself against mosquito bites.

Zika fever usually involves a rash, joint pain and eye inflammation (conjunctivitis) — uncomfortable symptoms, but usually not life-threatening. In rare cases it has been linked to the paralyzing Guillain-Barré syndrome.

Another disturbing correlation (though not yet a proven link) has been seen between Zika virus and a serious birth defect called microcephaly. A cluster of infants with this condition, born with smaller heads than normal, has emerged in Brazil recently, at the same time as a Zika outbreak.

No vaccine is approved for Zika although several are being developed.

Chikungunya, dengue and other diseases

The same type of mosquito carries other viral diseases: chikungunya, which can cause crippling arthritis, and dengue (break-bone fever). These, too, are spreading in South America, Central America and Mexico as well as parts of the United States, including Hawaii, Florida and Texas. In fact, dengue is found now on every continent, reports CNN.

Mosquitoes carry all of these viruses. In addition, Zika is known to spread through sexual contact. In the Americas the mosquito carrying these diseases is the Aedes aegypti, a different bug than the Anopheles mosquito that spreads malaria. And this is a useful distinction: While Anopheles bites mostly at night, Aedes aegypti is most active during daylight.

Good news about mosquito repellents

Until recently, mosquito repellents themselves were something of a problem because the most effective products contained a controversial chemical, DEET (N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide). But DEET is no longer the only game in town.

Newer products that work best rely primarily on synthetic chemicals and are not totally free of side effects, but any problems are much less severe than those possible with DEET, says Consumer Reports, which tested and rated mosquito repellents in spring 2015.

The best new repellents rely on “plantlike” ingredients — chemicals synthesized to resemble plant compounds. “For the first time ever in Consumer Reports’ tests of insect repellents, new, safer products — made with milder, plant-like chemicals — were the most effective,” CR reports.

The best way to protect yourself is to avoid getting bitten. Easier said than done, right? Read on for the lowdown on mosquito protection.


DEET: DEET is highly effective in repelling mosquitoes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, products with DEET deliver the best mosquito protection and are approved for use on children of any age. Possible side effects include mild redness and irritation. Long-term use in high amounts has been linked to mood changes, insomnia, rashes, disorientation and seizures. (Scientific American examines the evidence.) There is no need to use high concentrations, however. DEET is as effective in a low, 15 percent concentration as it is at 30 percent, Consumer Reports says. The Environmental Working Group, however, finds that “DEET’s safety profile is better than many people assume.”

Picaridin: A chemical based on piperine, a compound in black pepper plants, picaridin is particularly effective in repelling the Aedes aegypti mosquito. It does not cause cancer in animals, has very low toxicity and has not been linked to neurological or reproductive side effects. Look for products with 20 percent picaridin.Oil of lemon eucalyptus: This natural oil extracted from leaves of the gum eucalyptus plant is the only plant-based active insect repellent ingredient approved by the CDC. Look for natural plant oils if that matters to you. A more-highly refined version is known as para-menthane-3,8-diol, p-Menthane-3,8-diol, PMD or menthoglycol and by the brand name Citriodiol. Look for products with 30 percent oil of lemon eucalyptus or PMD, effective up to six hours. Don’t use it on children younger than 3 or if you are pregnant.

IR3535: This product, based on the amino acid alanine, is widely used in Europe and has FDA approval, says Slate’s look at repellent effectiveness and safety. But Consumer Reports’ tests did not find IR3535 among the most effective repellents.

Here are nine do’s and don’ts for avoiding mosquito bites:

Top tips

  1. Don’t depend on Skin So Soft bath oil. Despite its reputation, Avon’s Skin So Soft bath oil does not repel insects. Avon does make mosquito repellents, including Skin So Soft Bug Guard Plus Picaridin (10 percent picaridin) but picaridin may work better in higher amounts.
  2. Don’t depend on wristbands. Wristbands are not effective, CR says.
  3. Plant oils don’t cut it. Consumer Reports finds that natural sprays with oils from citronella, mint, geraniol, lemon grass and rosemary offer little, if any, protection. Also, some products mislead with names that imply they’re made of organic materials but are not.
  4. Keep DEET to a minimum. When using DEET choose products with low concentrations, like Off Family Care Smooth & Dry spray (15 percent DEET).
  5. Consider permethrin-treated clothing and gear. Permethrin is a chemical used to make fabric insect-resistant. You can buy pre-treated boots, pants, socks, tents or bed nets, like Pramex nets. Pre-treated clothing can stay effective up to 70 washings. Or buy permethrin spray. Clothing and gear you’ve treated with spray stays active for five to six washings. Permethrin breaks down in 42 days when exposed to sunlight or oxygen, so when gear is not in use store it in dark, airtight garbage bags.
  6. CR’s top choice: Consumer Reports’ top pick is Fisherman’s Formula Picaridin, with no DEET. CR gave it 96 points out of 100. Other highly rated insect repellents without DEET were Repel Lemon Eucalyptus and Natrapel 8 Hours. Recommended repellents with lower concentrations of DEET were Off Deepwoods VIII and Repel Scented Family. See CR’s ratings online or in the May 2015 magazine by purchasing a CR subscription or use your public library’s subscription.
  7. Cover up. Wear long pants, closed shoes, long-sleeve shirts and a hat. Avoid attracting mosquitoes by wearing light colors and no fragrances.
  8. Close unscreened windows. Use screens or air-conditioning at night. Depending where you are, consider using a chemically pre-treated bed net, which is a mosquito net suspended above and tucked into your bed.
  9. Avoid sunscreen-repellent combinations. Sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours while the most effective mosquito repellents last much longer.
  10. Watch for allergic reactions. Botanical repellents often contain allergens in high concentrations. Wash your hands after applying and wash your body at day’s end.

Are you planning travel to Zika-affected areas or know someone who is? Share this article with them, or your thoughts with us on our Facebook page.

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