Direct Line magazine

Avoiding insect bites and preventing tropical diseases

Updated on: 10 December 2020

A mosquito bites someone's arm.

So you’re off somewhere exotic on holiday. Warm weather; interesting inhabitants; colourful culture; deadly diseases...

Well, although the latter can be true, there's no need to break into a cold sweat just yet. With a little pre-planned precaution, the only bug you’ll need to cope with on your return is the post-holiday blues.

Before we look at how to tackle three common causes, we should first tackle three simple rules…

Now, let’s get down to the nitty gritty…

Protect yourself from mosquito bites

If you’re preparing for an African safari, perhaps some trekking in the Amazon, or even a little island hopping around the Pacific, make sure you also plan for parasites.

Outbreaks of Chikungunya and Zika have hijacked the headlines more recently, yet malaria is the most commonly known disease transmitted through infected mosquitos; around 1,500 British holidaymakers are treated for it each year.

Malaria usually poisons the liver, making it harder for red blood cells to carry enough oxygen to the body’s muscles and organs. Other cases can sometimes cause the brain to swell, leading to permanent damage. Both cases can lead to death.

Initial symptoms are similar to flu; headache, fever, aching muscles, stomach upset, lack of energy and a loss of appetite. These usually take between a week to a month to develop, but can sometimes take as long as a year. If you experience a fever after visiting a high-risk region, it’s probably best to visit a doctor.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Although nothing is 100% parasite-proof, there are some simple procedures you can put into place to help block the little suckers.

  • Stock up on insect repellent containing high diethyltoluamide (DEET) so you can apply it regularly throughout your trip.

  • Pack loose-fitting trousers and long sleeved tops to ensure your skin is covered up during the evenings.

  • Consider purchasing a mosquito net to sleep under, especially if you know your accommodation isn’t air-conditioned.

  • Seek advice from your doctor about anti-malaria tablets - they can sometimes reduce the risk by about 90%.

High-risk areas: Large areas of Africa and Asia, Central and South America, parts of the Middle East, some Pacific Islands, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Protect yourself from bacteria

Culturally-rich regions in Asia and Central America are brimming with welcoming locals offering an abundance of mouth-watering dishes.

Unfortunately, dense population can sometimes mean poor sanitation levels. As a result, tourists who unknowingly consume contaminated food or water may find they ingest a nasty bacterial infection as well.

Typhoid fever and hepatitis A are infamous diseases of this kind, but the most globally widespread culprit is cholera. Although there hasn’t been an outbreak of cholera in England since Victorian times, it’s estimated to be responsible for up to 142,000 worldwide deaths each year, so Brits need to be cautious when travelling in high-risk areas.

Fortunately, in most cases, people usually only experience the milder symptoms within a week of infection. Diarrhoea accompanied by vomiting isn’t a particularly pleasant way to pass the time… but it’s far better than the more severe symptoms of dehydration, a rapid heart rate, low blood pressure and sometimes, if left untreated, shock and possible death.

Hand washing

Vaccinations are available to protect yourself against water-borne diseases, although the best prevention is focused on common sense combined with good personal hygiene.

  • Always wash your hands prior to eating and after visiting the bathroom, keeping antibacterial hand gels on you in case facilities aren’t available.

  • Only drink water that's been recently boiled, or drink from a bottle that's been properly sealed. Also, avoid ice in your drinks.

  • Unless you've washed or peeled them yourself, avoid uncooked fruit, vegetables and salad. And always ensure seafood is cooked before eating.

  • Investigate which Oral Rehydration Solutions (ORS) are available. Just ask your GP or pharmacist for advice.

High-risk areas: Sub-Saharan Africa, southern and southeast areas of Asia, the Middle East, Central America and the Caribbean.

Protect yourself from other travellers

Human infectious diseases aren’t always the result of holiday romances. Take tuberculosis (TB); a common, contagious bacterial virus that’s spread through coughing and sneezing.

Recent statistics show that around 6,500 cases of TB are annually reported in England. Yet it usually only spreads if you’re exposed to someone who’s infected for long periods of time. So if you’re thinking about doing a community homestay or perhaps some voluntary work in a hospital, take extra precautions.

Abnormal swellings, night sweats and gradual loss of breath can all be signs of TB. And if you have a persistent, sometimes bloody cough you should visit a doctor straight away.

What you want to avoid is TB spreading outside the lungs where it could affect your bones and joints, as well as your immune, digestive, nervous and reproductive systems.

Although most of us receive a BCG vaccination at school, it only protects for about 15 years and it’s generally not given to adults over 35. If it's been close to that long since your jab, seeing a doctor before going abroad is recommended.

Of course, there’s no need to be a killjoy. Meeting fellow tourists during your travels is all part of the holiday experience. It’s great to be laidback and friendly… but there’s no harm in keeping safe while you’re at it.

  • Make sure your vaccinations are up to date. If not, talk to your doctor as soon as possible.

  • Avoid overcrowded, indoor environments - especially if a spitting culture is common.

  • Open windows when possible to improve ventilation of fresh air in the areas you spend a lot time.

  • Never drink unpasteurised milk. If in doubt, boil it before drinking.

High-risk areas: Sub-Saharan Africa, southeast Asia (particularly India, Pakistan, Indonesia and Bangladesh), South America, Russia, China and the western Pacific.

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