The Zika Virus is still spreading across Central and South America and into Mexico. Most recently, it has made its way to the U.S., first by hitting the territory of Puerto Rico, and then to the contiguous states through Florida. Without a vaccine or course of treatment, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as well as couples planning to grow their families, are duly concerned.
Zika Virus is a mild illness for most people, causing a low-grade fever, rash, joint discomfort, and conjunctivitis. Unfortunately, it is a threat to pregnant women and those trying to conceive. Affecting both men and women by transmitting the virus sexually, it has been blamed as a cause of microcephaly, a birth defect causing babies to be born with smaller heads and brains in some areas of the world.
There are ways to prevent being bitten by mosquitos. If you are traveling to a Zika zone and are planning a family now or in the future, you need to take precautions. One way to do this is by selecting the proper clothing.
What to Wear
Keeping your skin covered makes it harder for mosquitos to bite you. This means long pants and long sleeves. Bugs are more prevalent when the weather is warm, though, and wearing these clothes can be uncomfortable. It is possible to find lightweight, light-colored clothing from several companies who design moisture-wicking fabric that will cover you and still keep you cool.
Spandex leggings and yoga style pants are not recommended for coverage. They are too tight fitting and that makes it easy for mosquitos to bite right through. Baggier clothing is better.
Since Aedes mosquitos, those that specifically carry Zika Virus, gravitate to your lower extremities and love the smell of your feet, avoid summer sandals and wear shoes with full coverage and socks.
Protect your head with a hat and sunglasses. Some hats include a mosquito head net. It is not a fashion statement, but it is a practical travel item if a destination is known to be a haven for bugs. It will certainly ease your fears of being bitten and is worth the additional level of comfort. Separate lightweight head nets can go over your head and existing hat. They are made of a very fine mesh that you are able to see through and are “crushable” for easy packing.
The CDC recommends using a mosquito bed net for sleeping if you are overseas whether you are inside or outside and lack any other protection from insect bites. Even hotel rooms can be entered by insects through a hole in a window screen or by following you indoors when you enter. Finding a bed net is as easy as searching online for Emergency Zone and other travel gear companies. Bed nets can hang from a single rope and fold into a tiny nylon bag.
Mosquito netting is the best way to protect infants less than two months old. They are too young for repellents to be applied directly to their skin or even sprayed on their clothing without potential risk. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), not enough testing has been done to determine the effects of either natural or chemical repellents.
Insect Repellent Clothing
Permethrin-treated clothing is the next step in adding protection to the long sleeve, long pants regimen. Beyond covering as much skin as possible, Permethrin is an insecticide that repels biting insects including mosquitos that may be carrying the Zika Virus. It is a synthetic form of a natural chemical called pyrethrum derived from crushed dried chrysanthemum flowers that are known to have organic insect repelling properties.
Treating clothing with repellent is not a new concept and has been used to guard against insect bites in hunting, camping, hiking, and other rugged outdoor style clothing for years at places like Outdoor World, REI, and Dick’s Sporting Goods. However, technology is advancing and there may be some clothing options that are a little more fashionable on the horizon for those who do not care for the rough and rugged look.
Treated fabric is effective for 25 washings, non-toxic for humans, and odorless. It is deadly to insects that bite and sting including ticks, ants, fleas, flies, and chiggers that carry potential diseases like Lyme, West Nile, and Malaria. Studies have been conducted by companies creating blankets made of a non-woven treated material in areas of the world where these diseases are common. The material also makes it hard for mosquitos to find a way to bite-through.
A company called Nobitech claims to have created a micro-encapsulation technology in which the Permethrin is in time-released capsules within the fabric and can react when a mosquito lands. They recently provided athletic wear to professional athletes in the Olympic games in Brazil. The clothing style supplied is mainly t-shirts, pullovers, and pants. Again, these are lightweight and travel-friendly fabrics that wick moisture away and are even wrinkle resistant.
Another clothing company called Ex-Officio has a product line for both work and leisure with pants, shorts, sweatshirts, and more for men and women that are all treated with their version of an insect protection technology, using Permethrin to repel mosquitoes and other bugs.
Other possible choices are White Sierra and Coolibar, with clothes that offer protection from insects and the sun using Ultraviolet Protectant Fabric (UPF) for 70 washes and made for hot weather environments.
The CDC does not recommend any particular brand of treated clothing. It does suggest using EPA-registered insect repellents and Permethrin-treated items and feels these products are effective and safe for pregnant women and children.
Treating Your Own Clothing
If you do not want to purchase a whole new wardrobe of treated clothing for a temporary visit to a Zika prone area, apply Permethrin spray to your own clothing. Remember, this is a bug-repellent designed to be used on clothing and shoes that will last through six washings or six weeks. Do not put it on your skin because it is as powerful as using 100 percent DEET. It is odorless and will not stain the clothing.
When certain chemicals are widely used, mosquitos are capable of developing a resistance. Puerto Rico is one of those areas where Permethrin is ineffective. The CDC suggests contacting local authorities regarding mosquito control for more information on alternatives to this pesticide in the specific area you will be visiting.
Other insect sprays meet the requirements of the EPA and you can find them on their registered list. One product is Repel 100, a spray that contains 98.11 percent DEET and considered heavy-duty bug protection that lasts for 10 hours. DEET is by far the most effective insect repellent. Use it on all exposed skin and spray your clothing for additional protection.
If you need something organic, look for products containing oil of lemon eucalyptus. These are the only non-chemical repellents the CDC recommends – except for use with pregnant women and children under the age of three.
Traveling with a carry-on can be a problem when trying to fit bug sprays into your bag. There are insect repellent bracelets and wipes that are easier to use for travel. Cutter All Family Mosquito Repellent wipes contain DEET for protection in small packages that are easy to carry.
The Mosquito Repellent bracelet is offered by many companies and considered non-toxic with protection lasting between 12 and as much as 200 hours. It is advised, if you are in a Zika zone, to use bands containing DEET rather than citronella oil, lemon eucalyptus oil, or geraniol oil because they release bad odors for mosquitoes but do not kill them. If you feel safer using organic bracelets, use them in combination with other insect protection because they may not be strong enough on their own.
Repellent and Sunscreens
Sun Protection Factor (SPF) sunscreen can mask the effect of bug sprays. Repellents should be applied after sunscreen. Wearing repellent under clothes prevents it from evaporating and may cause it to accumulate on the fabric so stick to applying it to exposed areas. Use repellent liberally on your feet and ankles, shoes and pant legs. Remember, the Aedes mosquito that carries Zika is attracted to your lower body and specifically feet.
Protecting children requires a little more care when applying these products. Spray the repellent on your hands before rubbing it into their skin. Avoid their eyes and mouth and use very little around the ears. Use repellents with a 30 percent or less concentration of DEET. Oil of lemon eucalyptus should not be used on children younger than age three because it has yet to be thoroughly tested on children that young.
You may feel safer as outdoor temperatures begin to drop going into cooler seasons. Temperatures only need to rise to 50 or 60 degrees Fahrenheit for mosquitos to reappear. They will feed during the day and look for shade in your home through doors and windows. They are always nearby.
Pregnant Women and Mosquitoes
It has been scientifically proven that pregnant women attract twice as many mosquitos as those who are not. It is possible that pregnant women release more carbon dioxide to tempt mosquitos by taking more frequent breaths and exhaling 21 percent more air. It could be because pregnant women have higher body temperatures and release more substances from the surface of their skin to become easier targets.
The EPA feels Permethrin-treated items are safe and effective for pregnant women and children. It is not safe to use on the skin. Use a Permethrin or DEET spray on your own clothing only.
When it comes to direct application to skin:
- Picaridin is a safe alternative to using DEET insect repellent during pregnancy.
- Check with your doctor about using lemon eucalyptus and IR3535 mosquito sprays, but they are generally not recommended for pregnant women.
- Repellents using purified forms of citronella, cedar, and other plants may help, but they are not as effective as DEET or picaridin and not recommended in high-risk areas.
- Keep in mind, any fabric covering your skin that is thick enough to deter insects will protect you from mosquito bites with or without repellent.
Not every mosquito carries infection, but should you feel you have been exposed, get tested quickly to put your mind at rest. The virus in only detectable in blood tests for three to five days and in urine for about two weeks. Through treated clothing and recommended repellent products, you should be able to relax and enjoy your environment knowing you have done all you can to protect yourself.
Sources and Links:
Insect Shield Repellent Technology, 2015. http://www.insectshield.com/
Skintex MR III, Blanket, http://www.skintexmriii.com/
How to Safely Protect Yourself Against Mosquito Bites During Pregnancy, http://www.whattoexpect.com/pregnancy/pregnancy-health/mosquito-bites-and-repellent
Kloss, K., 6 Ways to Avoid getting Bitten by a Zika Virus Mosquito, http://www.rd.com/health/wellness/avoid-zika-mosquito-bites/
What to Pack if You’re Traveling to a Zika Virus Zone, 2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/smartertravel/what-to-pack-if-youre-tra_b_9202462.html
Coscarelli, A., 2016. This Clothing Line Claims to Protect You from Zika, http://www.refinery29.com/2016/08/119032/mosquito-repellent-clothing-zika-protection