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Every year, epidemiologists estimate, over 700 million people worldwide are infected with diseases carried by mosquitoes, resulting in over 4 million deaths.Here are some of the most important mosquito-borne conditions and how to recognize their symptoms.

Mosquito Bites Aren't Just Itchy

In much of the world, spring and summer are the height of mosquito season, although in the tropics it is mosquito season all year around. While we usually think of mosquitoes as the bearers of yellow fever and malaria, two diseases that have been largely eradicated in the developed world (although they are making a comeback), the fact is there are many new infectious conditions that mosquitoes spread.

Every year, epidemiologists estimate, over 700 million people worldwide are infected with diseases carried by mosquitoes, resulting in over 4 million deaths. Here are some of the most important mosquito-borne conditions and how to recognize their symptoms.

  • Malaria kills over 3 million people a year. Occasionally striking tourists who do not take appropriate precautions while visiting the tropics, malaria causes anemia and "tidal fevers" that can continue for a lifetime. The condition can also cause anemia and flu-like symptoms, and when there is a secondary infection, the fever may not "ebb and flow" like the classic tidal fever. The disease develops severe weeks after the mosquito bite.
  • West Nile virus infects nearly 50% of Egyptians who live in the Nile River valley. First appearing in the United States in 2002, it is now found in the entire United States except Hawaii. While most people who are infected with West Nile virus do not develop symptoms, very young children and very elderly seniors may develop flu-like symptoms and flaccid paralysis, in which muscles can be moved passively but they do not respond to the central nervous system.
  • Dengue fever, also known as "break bone fever" is a mosquito-born viral infection that is endemic in the tropics but that has spread to extreme South Texas and Arizona in the United States. Causing an unmistakable "saddle back" rash 3 or 4 days after infection, it also causes severe joint pain, extreme headache, nausea, and vomiting.

Mosquitoes bite humans to feed on their blood. During the day, mosquitoes locate their human meals by detecting movement, especially when people are wearing dark clothing. At night, mosquitoes can detect carbon dioxide, especially from heavy breathing, up to 100 feet (30 meters) away. Body odors that are unpleasant to humans also attract mosquitoes, as does beverage alcohol, as if mosquitoes preferred an after-dinner drink with their meal. People who are infected with malaria, ironically, attract more mosquitoes.

There are literally hundreds of products on the market designed to repel mosquitoes. In the United States, nearly 30% of the population uses some formulation of N, N-diethyl-3-methylbenzamide, also known as DEET. DEET is available in sprays, creams, towelettes, and pump sprays. It is marketed under the brand names OFF!, Ben's, Cutter, Repel, and many more.

There are problems with most DEET products. Even slight physical activity makes DEET up to 40% less effective. Using both DEET and a sunscreen makes the sunscreen up to 30% less effective. DEET can stain clothes and ruin contact lenses. DEET only works if it is sprayed or spread across the skin. Applying DDET to clothing or wearing a wristband or headband soaked in DEET has no effect on mosquitoes at all.

There are many alternatives, however, to the use of DEET.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Maibach HI, Skinner WA, Strauss WG, Khan AA. Factors that attract and repel mosquitoes in human skin. JAMA. Apr 18 1966, 196(3):263-6.
  • Schreck CE, Kline DL, Carlson DA. Mosquito attraction to substances from the skin of different humans. J Am Mosq Control Assoc. Sep 1990, 6(3):406-10.
  • Photo courtesy by Travis S. on Flickr: www.flickr.com/photos/baggis/2930291021/