You’re coming to Costa Rica on vacation, planning to get a Tamarindo vacation rental home with your family, and hoping to spend a week relaxing in the lush tropical environment. But there’s this nagging fear in the back of your mind. You’ve heard of all the terrible diseases mosquitos can give you. And in the tropics, aren’t there a lot of mosquitos? Why is no one talking about this? Should you be worried?
We’re here to answer your questions and discuss the top 4 mosquito-borne illnesses, how prevalent they are (or are not) in the Tamarindo area, and what you can do to avoid them.
1. The Classic: Malaria
When most people think of mosquito-borne illnesses, malaria is the first thing comes to mind. Luckily for us, malaria is virtually unheard of in Costa Rica and is non-existent in Guanacaste. If anyone suggests that you need malaria-prevention medication for your trip to a Tamarindo Beach resort, please do not listen to him/her. You’d be better off taking something to prevent lightning strikes and Acts of God.
Malaria, unlike other mosquito-born illnesses, is a parasitic infection. It is carried by the night-biting mosquito called Anopheles. An infected Anopheles mosquito bites you, it injects wicked little protozoa into your blood stream with its saliva, the protozoa settle into your liver and there they start causing trouble. They mature, infect red blood cells, begin to multiply inside the red blood cells, and cause these red blood cells to burst. Bursting red blood cells are obviously bad news.
Malaria symptoms are similar to flu symptoms: fevers, chills, possible nausea and vomiting, head aches—and then if the disease continues to progress, things continue to fall apart. We won’t discuss that because none of us are going to get malaria. It’s a non-factor in Costa Rica.
2. The Recent Scare: Zika
The media loves the Zika virus because the media loves drama. We hate to be boring, but you aren’t going to get Zika in Costa Rica either. A few hundred cases were confirmed in the country in 2016, but the numbers have continually decreased, and the epidemic we heard so much about never materialized here. Thank goodness. We aren’t inviting it.
The Zika virus is carried by the day-biting Aades mosquito. Zika’s symptoms are a lot less dramatic than other mosquito-borne illnesses. Many people infected with the Zika virus experience no symptoms at all, or may briefly run a low-grade fever and experience tiredness. Again, easy to confuse with a touch of the flu. Doctors recommend rest and acetaminophen.
The problem with Zika is what happens when a pregnant woman gets it. The virus can spread from the mother’s bloodstream to the baby and can result in microcephaly, brain malformations, and other birth defects. This is obviously no joke. Zika is a terribly destructive virus. But you are not going to get Zika in Costa Rica, especially not in Guanacaste.
3. The Chicken Disease: Chikungunya
Because Chikungunya is hard to pronounce and sounds like it starts with a chicken. What it actually starts with is that same day-biting bad-boy that carries Zika: the Aades mosquito.
According to Wikipedia, your chances of dying from chikungunya are 1 in 1,000. Your chances of feeling like crap if you get it are 100%. About 10 days after an infectious bite, fevers begin, severe joint and muscle pains may occur, rashes, headaches… It lasts for about a week and then fades, leaving you tired but probably immune to future chikungunya infection. So there’s that.
We do have chikungunya in Costa Rica. There is no epidemic, but it does exist–we won’t lie. Honestly, though, the cause of your nausea and headaches is much more likely to be too much guaro than chikungunya. Luckily, it’s not deadly and if you suffer through it once, you will never have to worry about it again.
4. The Actual Concern: Dengue Fever
The actual concern in Costa Rica is dengue fever. Dengue is a virus carried by that infamous day-biting Aades Aegypti mosquito.
Several strains of dengue fever exist, varying in severity and length of illness. A mild strain of dengue may cause a few days of fevers and chills with some headaches. A more dangerous strain of the virus may cause high fevers, severe headaches, intense bone and muscle pains, rashes, and potential internal hemorrhaging. In the very rarest of cases, dengue can be deadly, although so can the flu. One of the four strains of dengue provides lifetime immunity to that strain only, while the other strains not only provide no immunity, but can lead to complications if contracted a second time.
Dengue fever is the most common and mosquito-borne illness in Costa Rica and it does present potential danger. Are you in danger of getting it? Probably not, but it isn’t impossible. Cases of Dengue appear in all of Costa Rica’s provinces every year. Fatalities are so uncommon that the last one I can find record of occurred in 2013.
Where to Go If You Want To Get Dengue
Mosquitos need stagnant water to live and breed, therefore the rainiest regions of Costa Rica are the most prone to mosquito-borne illness. Guanacaste is Costa Rica’s driest region, and Tamarindo is arguably one of the driest parts of Guanacaste. Whew.
Dengue and chikungunya outbreaks are statistically linked to the poorest areas and neighborhoods where trash lying in yards and streets collects stagnant, dirty water. Mosquitos love it. More affluent areas with better hygiene practices and an emphasis on the aesthetically-pleasing (i.e. where it’s important to look pretty) have less trash laying around where water can collect, and mosquitos can breed.
Tamarindo isn’t perfect, but your Tamarindo hotel or vacation rental is kept clean and neat-looking in order to compete for your affections with its clean and neat-looking neighbors. This has the added benefit of giving nasty mosquito populations fewer places to thrive. And nobody gets sick. If you notice that mosquitos are biting you, you should take the following precautions, but don’t let fear of these tiny bloodsuckers ruin your vacation. Not every mosquito carries a disease. Most mosquito bites produce nothing more than an itchy welt.
How to Minimize Mosquito Bites?
a) You could do something insane like refuse to go outside, but we don’t recommend it.
b) Protective clothing helps: long pants, long sleeves, shoes, and socks.
At the beach? Are we serious? Do people really do that? No. Not really. But you could.
c) Wear repellent, especially in the morning and evening hours or in shady areas. Yes, we know DEET is bad for you, but so is dengue. There are natural plant-based repellents without DEET, but they repel dollar bills better than they repel mosquitos. Just saying.
d) Keep the fans on. Mosquitoes can’t fly in the wind.
e) Chill out. Mosquitoes are attracted to higher body temperatures and sweatier skin.
f) Have type A blood–that’s the mosquitos’ least-favorite flavor.
g) Spend as much time as possible surfing. One place nobody ever got a mosquito bite is out in the line-up. In case you wondered.
Now that you’re jungle-ready and have crossed Terror of Small Sharp-Toothed Insects off your list, get your bug repellent, your sunscreen, your flip flops, and get down here to your Tamarindo vacation rental or hotel!