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Too Much Sun, Mosquito Bites Can Wreck Tropical Travel

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – Feb. 10, 2017 – If the last blast of winter has you longing for sun-soaked beaches in tropical locales, be sure to stop at the drug store for sunscreen and insect repellant before leaving for spring vacation.

“In places like the Caribbean and South and Central America, where it is already summertime, people can potentially be exposed to health risks that they may not have at home,” said Christopher Ohl, M.D., infectious disease specialist and director of the International Travel Clinic at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. “They aren’t life threatening, but they can certainly wreck a vacation.”

Most people don’t realize that the closer you get to the equator the faster you get sunburned. Be especially careful on the beach or at poolside where the water reflects sunlight and intensifies the burn potential, Ohl said. In the Caribbean and Central America, people can get sunburned in as little as 10 to 15 minutes, so wear sunscreen and a tee shirt or cover-up during the middle of the day when the sun is strongest.

Being careful about what you eat and drink can help prevent traveler’s diarrhea. Bottled water, carbonated beverages, coffee, tea, cooked food and peelable fruit are considered the best options, Ohl said. Some travelers may want to talk with their doctor about taking along an antibiotic to use for treatment of traveler’s diarrhea should they get it while traveling.

Many spring travel destinations also can put people at greater risk of contracting mosquito-borne diseases:

Malaria – Areas most at risk are northern South America, eastern Panama, Hispaniola (Haiti and Dominican Republic), Guatemala, Honduras and parts of southern Mexico. Ohl suggests bringing bed netting to sleep under and a good insect repellant with 30 to 35 percent DEET. Talk with your doctor or travel medicine specialist before leaving to see if you also need to be on anti-malarial pills.

Dengue fever – Transmitted by daytime-biting mosquitos, the disease is prevalent throughout the tropics in villages, small towns and urban areas or where beaches are backed by trees. Symptoms include headache with high fever and severe body aches.

“It’s like the worst case of flu you’ve ever had,” Ohl said. “It probably won’t kill you but you’ll wish you were dead for a few days. There isn’t a vaccine or medicine so you just need to avoid mosquito bites. Although mosquitos aren’t a problem on the beach, you certainly can get bitten if you pull your chair back into the shade of trees lining the beach.”

Zika – Miami Beach and Puerto Rico are still considered risk areas. If out in the sun and wind, mosquitos aren’t a problem, Ohl said, but more of an issue when you get back into cabanas at resorts and hotels.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Zika is primarily a concern for women who are pregnant or for people thinking about starting a family. Women should consider not getting pregnant for eight weeks after returning from a Zika-prone area, Ohl said. Men can spread Zika through their sperm for up to six months after contracting the virus, and should consider using barrier contraceptives during that time frame.  

Chikungunya – The Caribbean and Central America have sporadic cases. The virus causes fever, rash and joint aches that can last a while, Ohl said, so again avoiding mosquitos is the best protection.

If you want to prevent both sunburn and mosquito bites, Ohl said, the best way is to put sunscreen on first and then wait 15 to 30 minutes before applying insect repellant. Ohl prefers ointment or cream repellants because they last longer on the skin, are easier to apply and to carry with you in 2 to 3 ounce tubes.

Ohl offers one more tip to ensure a healthy spring vacation: Be sure you’ve gotten a flu shot before traveling. In tropical areas, influenza circulates throughout the year but at a lower level. Spring break occurs at the tail end of flu season in the U.S., and you can get it from other people on the plane. 

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Last Updated: 02-10-2017
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