Mosquitos and Diseases They Carry

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Spring is in the air, and so are a lot of flying bugs. We talked recently about the stings of bees and wasps. Unlike these, bites by mosquitos are common vectors of various infectious diseases.  The good thing is that anaphylaxis (severe allergic reactions associated commonly with bee stings) is rarely an issue with mosquito bites, but the downside is that several possibly life threatening illnesses may be passed easily by these insects.

The increased amount of time we will spend outside in a survival situation will increase the chances of exposure to one or more mosquito-borne illnesses. Let’s discuss some of the diseases that use these insects as an agent. One of the most notorious diseases caused by mosquito vectors is Malaria.

Disease Vectors and Mosquitos

Malaria is caused by a microscopic organism called a protozoan. When mosquitos get a meal by biting you, they inject these microbes into your system. Once in the body, they colonize your liver.  From there, they go to your blood cells and other organs. By the way, only female mosquitos bite humans.

Symptoms of Malaria appear flu-like, and classically present as periodic chills, fever, and sweats.  The patient becomes anemic as more blood cells are damaged by the protozoa.  With time, periods between episodes become shorter and permanent organ damage may occur.

Diagnosis of malaria cannot be confirmed without a microscope, but anyone experiencing relapsing fevers with severe chills and sweating should be considered candidates for treatment.  The medications, among others, used for Malaria are Chloroquine, Quinine, and Quinidine.

Sometimes, an antibiotic such as Doxycycline or Clindamycin is used in combination with the above. Physicians are usually sympathetic towards prescribing these medications to those who are contemplating trips to places where mosquitos are rampant, such as some underdeveloped countries. If not, Doxycycline is available as Bird-biotic and Clindamycin as Fish-Cin.

 Other mosquito-borne diseases include Yellow Fever, Dengue Fever, and West Nile Virus.

Yellow Fever is a viral illness known for taking the lives of workers during the construction of the Panama Canal. Originating in Africa, it most probably reach Latin America through the slave trade in the 16th or 17th Centuries.   Walter Reed was a physician who first figured out that the causative organism for Yellow Fever was carried by mosquitos, and his name is still on the U.S.’s largest veteran’s hospital.

Yellow fever presents in most cases in humans with fever, chills, nausea, muscle pain, and headache. This symptom set goes away after several days but, sometimes, a toxic phase follows, in which liver damage causes yellowing of the skin (known as “jaundice”) and may lead to death. Because of the increased bleeding tendency, yellow fever is considered a typle of hemorrhagic fever. The World Health Organization estimates that yellow fever causes 30,000 deaths every year in unvaccinated areas, mostly in Africa, and considers it to be on the rise.

Vaccines are available that counteract the virus.

West Nile virus is also passed by mosquitos and the worst cases present with similar symptoms to other neuro-invasive infectious diseases with fever, headaches, and altered mental status. “Encephalitis”, a common term for this symptom group, relates to the inflammation of the Central Nervous System (brain, spinal cord, and coverings).  A mild version involves the development of fever, headaches, back pain, and other non-specific symptoms, but a small percentage may develop a worse condition that damages the nervous system. The most common symptom  is muscular weakness  (seen in maybe half the patients), often with motor symptoms, paralysis, decreased reflexes.  If severe enough, the symptoms may spread to other organ systems.

West Nile Virus is now the most commonly seen viral encephalitis in the United States, with record numbers of cases in the State of Texas in recent years.  Although a vaccine is available for horses, no human vaccine is yet available.

Dengue fever is an infectious caused by a virus.  Symptoms include fever, headache, muscle pains, joint inflammation, and a skin rash that looks vaguely like measles. A small minority of patients develops Dengue hemorrhagic fever, which can cause shock and death. There are several different types, with survival of one virus giving immunity long term to that subtype but only only short-term immunity to the other subtypes.

As viral illnesses, there are few curative options, although you may treat symptoms individually (for example, acetaminophen for fever, ibuprofen for backache). As commercial vaccines are controversial and, in a survival situation,  non-existent for many of the above illnesses, it is important to decrease the chance of exposure. Prevention is sought by reducing the habitat and the number of mosquitoes and limiting exposure to bites.

The lower the mosquito population near your retreat, the less likely you will fall victim to one of these diseases. You can decrease the population of mosquitos in your area and improve the likelihood of preventing illness by:

  •  Looking for areas of standing water that could serve as mosquito breeding grounds.  Drain all water that you do not depend on for survival. This includes emptying unused pools, fountains, birdbaths, etc.
  • Monitoring the screens on your retreat windows and doors and repairing any holes or defects
  • Unclogging roof gutters.
  • Being careful to avoid outside activities at dusk, dawn, or early evening.  This is the time that mosquitos are most active.
  • Wear long pants and shirts whenever you venture outside.
  • Have a good stockpile of insect repellants. 

If you are reluctant to use chemical repellants, you may consider natural remedies. Plants that contain Citronella may be rubbed on your skin to discourage bites.  Lemon balm, despite having a fragrance similar to citronella, does not have the same bug-repelling properties (despite its name, lemon balm is actually a member of the mint family).

When you use an essential oil to repel insects, re-apply frequently and feel free to combine oils as needed. Besides Citronella oil, you could use:

  •           Lemon Eucalyptus oil
  • ·         Cinnamon oil
  • ·         Peppermint oil
  • ·         Geranium oil
  • ·         Clove oil
  • ·         Rosemary oil

The smallest organisms can sometimes cause the most damage to your ability to survive the aftermath of a major disaster.  Learning more about these critters will give you a good chance to avoid infection disease to run rampant through your camp.

Joe Alton MD


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