CANCUN MEDICAL

PPeople do get sick on vacation. There are certain local dangers. Generally speaking, the guide books avoid any real discussion of them as they don’t wish to frighten you. They are also usually written by people who are either not from this area or don’t do much exploring and are unaware of the realities of jungle life. This subject is especially important if you plan to visit vegetated areas outside the Cancun Hotel Zone.

All rates are in U. S. dollars plus tax. Not all hotels had set their next winter rates as of press time. The rates quoted are what are known as “rack” rates — probably the highest rate the hotel offers. You can expect a much better rate in a package or by simply asking for a better deal from your travel agent or the hotel itself.

Jungle Life

The most beautiful thing about Cancun is that you can be in the jungle within five minutes. Despite the closeness to civilization, it will still be real jungle, no matter how small a piece. An American tourist was lost for 19 days in the San Gervasio park in Cozumel, despite the best efforts of search teams that included helicopters and planes. He survived by eating small fish that he caught with his hands and finally walked out on his own.

Except for mosquitoes and an occasional tabano, stinging or biting vermin are mostly a problem outside Cancun proper. Be careful when exploring outside the urbanized area. Never go barefoot in any vegetation, including hotel lawns (See “Mosquitoes, zancudo” below). Some ruins, such as Ruinas del Rey and Kobá , are in clearings in dense jungle. Use insect repellent, wear shirts, long pants, socks and shoes and stay on the beaten path

African bees

There is a very thorough government program to trap all African bees, as the Yucatan Peninsula is one of the most important honey-producing areas in the world. The hives develop rapidly, however. There have been cases of severe attacks in other parts of the Yucatan, but not in Quintana Roo. Never touch any insect hive. Report any hives to maintenance or security personnel.

The bees seem to react to actions they perceive to be aggressive, so be really calm and slow if you find yourself being examined by inquisitive, small dark bees. Don’t brush at them or make rapid movements of any kind; just let them lose interest, then slowly move away. If attacked, the best strategy is probably to dive into the water.

We are getting more information about this. It’s not much of a problem here in Cancun so far, but hives have been detected and removed, one right in the garden of the residential complex where we live. The bees buzzed Jesse and Anita, but lost interest when they remained cool.

Agua mala

During late April through June, a stinging organism called agua mala or sea lice is prevalent in these waters. An itching hive results within four or five hours after it brushes against you. Always shower immediately after coming out of the ocean. Be sure to rinse under your bathing suit and apply water vigorously to your belly button and all hairy areas such as underarms and pubic hair. If you do get these itchy swellings, which look like a rash rather than mosquito bites, there are a couple of remedies: Logoderm, a cortisone-based creme available in any local drugstore, applied twice daily is a big help. Soyaloid polvo, a poultice applied twice daily will also relieve the itching. Plain white vinegar also helps, especially if sponged on immediately after coming out of the water.

Chakistes

These are tiny, almost invisible gnats. The bites usually don’t itch very long, but outside of Cancun there are varieties that can be as bad as mosquitoes and even get right through screens and mosquito nets. Proper clothing and insect repellent are the only remedies. Fortunately, chakistes are quite variable depending upon season and climate conditions. The best strategy when they do swarm is to move inside. When the wind shifts or the sun moves, they tend to disappear.

Diarrhea

This subject is covered in the other guides, but deserves some comment. The best way to avoid an infection is to wash your hands and face frequently, especially after going to the bathroom. Don’t eat unpeeled raw fruit and, in general, stay away from raw food of any kind. Major hotels use sterilizing solutions on salads, so it’s quite safe to eat these. When eating outside your hotel, stick to cooked food and don’t fall into the temptation of eating from small street-side stands. We have some more advice about this under “Restaurants.”

Cancun city water comes from deep wells. It is filtered and chlorinated at the well and then re-purified by many of the hotels. When it leaves the well it’s at least as safe as your home tap water, which is not saying much, given the current state of most community water systems and all the things that can happen from the well to your faucet. As a visitor, you should stick to bottled water See “Water”.

Most tourist diarrheas in Cancun are caused by the change in the mineral content of the water, the increased intake of raw fruits and dehydration resulting from the heat and alcoholic beverages. This kind of diarrhea is self-limiting and will usually be gone within 24 hours.

The best treatment is to rest, stay off booze but keep your fluid intake up, and eat bland food. Kaopectate or Pepto-Bismol will help, but don’t medicate yourself with drugs such as Lomotil, which will mask the symptoms of a real infection.

Severe Diarrhea

If your diarrhea is very severe, or you throw up, see a physician right away for symptomatic relief. This is the only way to be sure that you have a transient diarrhea rather than an infection, which must be treated with the correct medicines.

Any diarrhea with severe cramping and/or fever or lasting more than 24 hours is probably an infection and should be attended to by a physician. It is better to treat this here than to wait until you get home, as our doctors are more experienced in identifying the specific infection by its symptoms alone and treating it correctly. A complete laboratory test takes three days, so most infections are treated pragmatically in the case of tourists here on short visits. Laboratory services here are very inexpensive and you should always have your stool examined if there is time. We feel very strongly that any diarrhea lasting more than 24 hours in a child must have a laboratory analysis, even if it is only a microscopic examination, which will take not more than a few hours.

If the infection persists when you return home, you should see a specialist in intestinal parasites rather than your family doctor. Always insist that your stool be tested in a laboratory, preferably by the culture method. The more common parasites and infections — amoebas, giardia, salmonella, shigella — are easily identified and treated. If none of these show up, the infection may be a yeast. To find this, the culture should be taken from within the rectum rather than from the stool. All parasites, bacterial infections and yeasts will respond to the correct treatment. If you don’t get better, change doctors.

Despite what you might read about the horrors of amoebas and other parasites, they are unlikely to become dangerous even when untreated, except in the infirm. Although this is nothing you want to confirm by self-neglect, it is true even of children. A well-nourished and healthy human being can fight off almost any infection. Deaths from infant diarrhea, for example, although the single greatest cause of infant mortality in tropical regions, occur almost exclusively among the lower classes in malnourished children who are not properly treated. Cancun has the lowest infant mortality rate in Latin America, much better than many communities in the United States.

Mosquitoes

As a result of what we consider over-spraying by the government, but they consider merely prudent business, there are hardly any mosquitoes left in the Hotel Zone. There are still mosquitoes in town, especially in vegetated areas. Outside of Cancun, they can be as thick as snowflakes at certain times, usually just before and after sunset and after rain. We remember thirteen straight days of rain when we were living in Playa del Carmen. The mosquitoes were so numerous one day that when we tried to go shopping, we had to give up and run home.

If you sight-see in vegetated areas, wear long-sleeved shirts and trousers and socks, especially during mosquito hours (dawn and dusk), when it is better to stay inside. When selecting accommodations outside of the Cancun Hotel Zone, make sure to check the screens for good repair and tight fit. If you see blood smears on the walls, beware. Mosquito repellents do work, but the best bet for extended stays outside of urban Cancun is to sleep under mosquito netting — called pabellón here, and available in Mercado 23, El Parian, and Hamacas El Aguacate in Plaza Bonita. The nylon kind is the best.

The itching of mosquito bites can be temporarily relieved with applications of 96º alcohol, available in any supermarket or drugstore. We like the red label best. They say you can drink it, but we’ve never tried it, even though it is marked “potable.” The blue label is denatured and doesn’t smell as good. Some mosquitoes, called zancudos, leave raised welts that itch ferociously. They hatch in the roots of grass and the bites are most frequent on the ankles and can take up to two weeks to heal. Cortisone cremes can help relieve the itching.

Portuguese Man o’ War

Prevalent only during certain wind conditions and seasons, this jellyfish looks like a purple balloon with hanging tentacles. Don’t touch them. The stings are painful but not dangerous. The local remedy is to bathe the affected part in urine. A papaya or meat-tenderizer poultice will also help.

Scorpions

We have seen many scorpions, especially when living outside of Cancun. They are extremely unaggressive and will sting only if molested. Faera is the only one in our family who has ever been stung by a scorpion, despite living on the borders of the jungle for months at a time. It was not a very traumatic event and did not require medical attention. Most scorpion stings are painful but not dangerous, especially in this area. The most venomous scorpions are small and pale. Any child under the age of eight stung by a scorpion should receive immediate medical attention. So should adults who experience any change in breathing or produce thick, ropy mucous. These danger signs will appear soon after the sting. Although it is a good idea to see a physician, it is not necessary for routine scorpion stings, which will be uncomfortable for about twenty-four hours. Fatalities are extremely rare. Almost all occur in the state of Durango, which has especially venomous scorpions.

Sea Urchin Spines

Usually affecting skin-divers only, these are very painful, but respond to the urine/meat tenderizer treatment.

Snakes

Don’t go off the beaten path in vegetated areas. Never touch a snake. Any snake bites should be attended to immediately by a physician. We have heard of only one serious snake bite since 1983 hereafter Hurricane Gilbert, when the snakes in the Puerto Morelos herpetarium escaped, and one of them bit a women. She was in grave danger but recovered.

Spiders

I accidentally left my moccasins in Akumal on an excursion in 1983 and had to walk barefoot on the path to the grotto at Xcaret. I felt a slight sting on his left foot and killed a small black insect. The grotto seemed unusually beautiful when we went swimming. The following day, my foot was black and swollen and my left eye was twitching. Medical treatment cleared up the problem rapidly. The doctor thought it might have been a Black Widow spider.

Stinging Corals

Skin-divers will sometimes have reactions after touching or brushing against certain corals. The local remedy is to wash the affected area in urine and/or apply meat tenderizer to destroy the offending alien proteins. Your dive instructor will know what to do. The best advice is don’t touch coral or other underwater fauna.

Tabanos

Tabanos are large yellow flies, similar to horse flies, prevalent during the summer months, but found here all year ’round, especially on beaches outside of Cancun. The tabano has a distinctive flight pattern of rapid circles around its potential victim. It’s always a good idea to kill any tabano that starts stalking you, as they tend not to give up once they make up their mind to bite. This is easier if two people cooperate. Generally speaking, you will not feel the bite itself, but there will be an extremely intense itch soon afterward. It can be quite painful, lasting for days. Many people are completely immune to tabano bites, but others suffer an allergic reaction in which the bitten area swells, sometimes grotesquely. We haven’t discovered any real remedy for tabano bites. I used to get the swelling, but now seem to be more immune. I found some relief by holding the affected area under the hottest water I could stand, which intensified the itch at first, but then reduced the annoyance.