Depending on where you live, a mosquito bite can be just a nuisance or it can lead to a life-threatening disease. From Chikungunya virus to Zika, most parents have learned to fear mosquito-borne diseases and because they hear about them so much, fear or even get panicked over mosquito bites.
While it is good to prepared and learn to avoid mosquito bites, you likely shouldn’t be panicked.
But even if your kids aren’t at risk for a mosquito-borne disease, it’s no fun getting bit by mosquitoes. Mosquito bites are itchy, and even when bites don’t get infected, they can leave behind crusted scabs that kids continue to pick at, over and over again.
Still no reason for panic or fear – just good reasons to learn to avoid mosquito bites.
Mosquitoes and Mosquito-Borne Diseases
Diseases that can be spread from the bite of a mosquito can include:
- Chikungunya – can develop fever and severe and debilitating joint pain 3-7 days after a mosquito bite from Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes in countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Indian and Pacific Oceans, Caribbean countries, and most recently, in Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
- Dengue – can cause severe flu like symptoms, including fever, severe headache, eye pain, joint and muscle pain, rash, and bleeding, after a mosquito bite in one of at least 100 endemic countries, including many popular tourist destinations in Latin America, Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands. While there are cases in the US, it is important to keep in mind that “nearly all dengue cases reported in the 48 continental states were acquired elsewhere by travelers or immigrants.”
- Eastern Equine encephalitis – a very rare disease, which is fortunate, as it is one of the most deadly of the mosquito-borne diseases. Transmission is in and around swampy areas, with most cases in Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, and New Jersey.
- Filariasis – spread by repeated mosquito bites over months to years, this disease is still found in at least 73 countries in parts Asia, Africa, the Western Pacific, and parts of the Caribbean and South America, these parasitic worms can grow and live in our lymph system
- Japanese encephalitis – you can get a Japanese encephalitis virus infection after being bit by an infected Culex species mosquito in one of 24 countries in South-East Asia and the Western Pacific, especially if you are not vaccinated.
- La Crosse encephalitis – rare, but can occur in the upper Midwestern and mid-Atlantic and southeastern states and can cause severe disease, including encephalitis, in children.
- Malaria – although malaria was eliminated in the US in the early 1950s, we still see about 1,700 cases each year in returning travelers. That’s because malaria is a still a big problem around the world, from certain some states in Mexico to most of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
- St. Louis encephalitis – can occur in eastern and central states, starts with mild symptoms, but can very rarely (between 1 to 12 cases a year) progress to encephalitis (inflammation of the brain).
- West Nile – has now been found in every state except Alaska and Hawaii, but up to 80% of people don’t develop any symptoms and only 1% develop severe symptoms, with folks over age 60 years most at risk. Although West Nile season peaks in mid-August, cases are usually reported from late summer through early fall.
- Western Equine encephalitis – rare, but deadly, like Eastern Equine encephalitis, and is found in states west of the Mississippi River
- Yellow fever – a vaccine-preventable disease, the Yellow fever virus is still found in tropical and subtropical areas in South America and Africa.
- Zika – is mostly a risk during pregnancy as it can cause serious birth defects, including microcephaly, so there are warnings to avoid high risk areas, which in addition to multiple countries and territories around the world, includes Brownsville, Texas and previously included Miami-Dade County, Florida
Won’t a long list of diseases get parent’s panicked? Only if they skip the part about where the mosquitoes that cause those diseases are active.
What to Do If a Mosquito Bites Your Child
If a mosquito bites your child, don’t panic. There is no reason to run to your pediatrician or the ER and get tested for West Nile or Zika.
That’s not to say a mosquito bite couldn’t send you to the ER, but it would likely only be if your child was severely allergic, with the bite causing an anaphylatic reaction. Fortunately, most bites just leave little red bumps that go away in a few days if you don’t scratch them too much.
So the key treatment after a mosquito bite is classically about relieving the symptoms of itching. As with other itchy rashes, you can do this by:
- applying an OTC anti-itch cream (hydrocortisone cream or calamine lotion) to the bite
- taking an oral antihistamine, especially at night
- applying a prescription steroid cream to help control itching
Also, keep your child’s finger nails short to minimize damage from scratching and wash the areas with soap and water to decrease the risk of secondary infections.
“Where you live, your travel history, and the travel history of your sex partner(s) can affect your chances of getting Zika.”
CDC on Know Your Zika Risk
In general, you should see your pediatrician if you have the symptoms of a mosquito-borne disease and have been in an area with risk of that disease.
Should you worry about dengue, West Nile, or Zika, etc?
- Does your child live in an area where you can commonly find the mosquitoes that carry any of these diseases?
- Did your child recently visit an area where you can commonly find the mosquitoes that carry any of these diseases?
- Is your child a pregnant teen?
- Is your teen sexually active?
- Does your child have a chronic medical condition, such as cancer, diabetes, hypertension, or kidney disease?
- Is your child a first- or second-generation immigrant from a malaria-endemic country who returned to their home country to visit friends and relatives?
- Was your child at risk for a mosquito-borne disease and skipped taking preventative medications for malaria or skipped getting a Japanese encephalitis vaccine or a Yellow fever vaccine?
Again, see your pediatrician if your child had a mosquito bite and now has the symptoms of a mosquito-borne disease after being in an area with risk of that disease. This is especially important for anyone who is pregnant or with a chronic medical problem, as they might be at higher risk for severe disease. The elderly are more at risk too.
Preventing Mosquito Bites
Of course, whether you are traveling to the tropics or going for a walk in your neighborhood, your best bet is going to be trying to avoid mosquitoes and mosquito bites in the first place.
- use insect repellent, which can protect your kids from tick bites too
- wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants when possible
- get rid of standing water around your home – places where mosquitoes can breed
- make sure windows and doors have screens or are kept shut to keep mosquitoes out of your home
- instead of insect repellent, consider using mosquito netting to cover your infant’s stroller or carrier when outside, and especially when in high risk parts of the world, using insecticide treated bed nets
And review travel advisories before planning a trip to see if you need to take any additional precautions to avoid a mosquito-borne disease.
What to Know About Mosquitoes and Mosquito Bites
Mosquito-borne diseases, like dengue, West Nile, and Zika, can certainly be serious, but you likely don’t need to panic your child has gotten one of them every time he or she gets a mosquito bite.
More About Mosquitoes and Mosquito Bites
- CDC – Mosquito-Borne Diseases
- WHO – Mosquito-borne diseases
- CDC – Areas with Risk of Zika
- MMWR – Update: Interim Guidance for Health Care Providers Caring for Pregnant Women with Possible Zika Virus Exposure — United States (Including U.S. Territories), July 2017
- CDC – Malaria Information and Prophylaxis, by Country
- CDC – General Questions About West Nile Virus
- CDC – What is Eastern equine encephalitis (EEE)?
- CDC – What is La Crosse encephalitis?
- CDC – What is lymphatic filariasis?
- CDC – What is Japanese encephalitis?
- Western Equine Encephalitis Fact Sheet
- ACIP – Yellow Fever Vaccine: Recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices
- Diseases that can be Transmitted by Mosquitoes
- Mosquito-Borne Diseases
- Take a Bite Out of Mosquito Stings
- CDC – Controlling Mosquitoes at Home
- AAP – Choosing an Insect Repellent for Your Child
Last Updated on August 2, 2017 by Vincent Iannelli, MD