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Feature Story

Chills, aches–and achoo!

When rainy season illnesses drain your health.

By Neslie Buena, M.D.

JULY 2013

There might be actual wisdom to the nursery rhyme about banishing the rain for another day—and its ingrained health advisory covers adults as well.

In a tropical country like ours, the rainy season is one of life’s certainties. Not only does this wet period give us reasons to take out raincoats and umbrellas, but it also brings a deluge of illnesses, ranging from the common, benign cough and colds, to the potentially life-threatening dengue fever and leptospirosis. Knowing about these threats to health can be beneficial in the long run. There’s a corresponding remedy for each of these ailments—even better, there are ways to prevent them from happening in the first place.

Dengue fever

This dreaded disease is caused by any one of four strains of the dengue virus, passed on to humans through the bite of an infected Aedes aegypti mosquito. Like any mosquito, it breeds in stagnant water—so any vessel that can collect rainwater can possibly house its eggs.

In the community or household level, one of the most effective ways to prevent dengue is to eradicate places where mosquitoes can lay their eggs. Simple steps such as putting away containers that can hold rainwater and cleaning vases or gutters that can collect water are good practices. Another way to go is by avoiding the insect bites with the help of mosquito repellents, window screens and mosquito nets.

There are currently no drugs to treat dengue, so prevention is really best for this illness. Typically presenting with high-grade fever, muscle pains, headache, eye pain, rashes and some mild bleeding symptoms such as bruising, dengue fever is a self-limiting condition that needs increased fluid intake, bed rest and some pain relievers.

Dengue hemorrhagic fever (DHF), on the other hand, is a severe form of dengue. This complication warrants immediate medical attention. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warning signs that require a visit to the emergency room include intense abdominal pain, persistent vomiting, red skin patches, bleeding symptoms—vomiting blood, gum and nose bleeding, black and tarry stools—difficulty of breathing and signs of dehydration such as cold and clammy extremities. Patients with DHF are at risk of bleeding with their low platelet count, thus, a visit to the emergency room is a must.

The flu

Has someone ever told you not to get rained on to prevent a case of the sniffles? Truth be told, there’s no direct causation between rain and the common cold. The latter is caused by any of the group of influenza viruses—such as H1N1 or H3N2. It’s spread through infected respiratory droplets, whether via direct contact from a sick person who may be sneezing or talking, or through contact with an infected surface, like touching a doorknob. So the key element to getting the flu is an encounter with the virus, which doesn’t necessarily happen when you go out in the rain.

Studies show that one of the reasons the flu is more common during the rainy season is increased household crowding. Since most people stay indoors, there’s increased risk of contact with people who are infected with the virus, allowing a more rapid spread of the disease-causing agent. In addition, research shows that it isn’t specifically the rain that gives us the common cold, but the humidity in this kind of weather that makes for a good environment for viruses to thrive.

For Filipinos who dismiss the flu as trangkaso, they go on to self-medicate with paracetamol, increased fluids and bed rest. And many may be right in doing so, as this presents with the usual combination of cough and colds, sore throat, headaches, body pains and fever. But even a generally benign illness for most of the public is considered potentially life-threatening in certain patient groups. Particularly susceptible to complications are children below 5 years old, adults 65 years old and above, pregnant women, and patients with existing conditions such as asthma, heart disease and diabetes.

This is why it’s a universal recommendation that everyone 6 months or older gets vaccinated for the flu every year. This preventive action doesn’t just decrease the number of people who get sick, but also the risk of spreading the infection to other people.


Caused by exposure to body fluids of infected animals—except saliva—either through direct contact with the urine or contact with contaminated water, soil or food, leptospirosis is a form of bacterial infection. Potentially-infected animals include rodents, horses, cows, dogs, pigs and other wild animals. More common during the rainy season, with the increasing frequency of flash floods, wading in floodwaters has become one of the more significant risk factors for developing this illness.

Symptoms can develop between two days up to four weeks from exposure to the bacteria and could occur in two phases. First-phase symptoms are largely similar to that of the flu or dengue fever, presenting with fever, headache, body pains, rashes, abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhea. Most patients, with prompt treatment, will recover from the first phase. But for those who move on to the second phase, symptoms become more severe, with yellowing of the skin as a prominent symptom. These patients are said to have Weil’s Syndrome, with complications such as meningitis, liver damage and kidney failure. It’s very important for patients to immediately consult a physician for these cases.

Unlike dengue fever or influenza where the illness is usually self-limiting with adequate hydration, nutrition and rest, leptospirosis requires antibiotic therapy given after a thorough medical evaluation. Prevention is still the best bet with leptospirosis. Refrain from swimming or wading in waters potentially contaminated with animal urine; wear protective clothing and footwear when you can’t avoid the floodwaters; and thoroughly wash after possible exposure.

How else can you protect yourself and your loved ones from the season’s illnesses? Find out more in the July issue of HealthToday.

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