Cuba is a tropical country and the health hazards are many: filthy public fixtures, garbage rotting in the streets, polluted watercourses, broken sewer pipes, holes in sidewalks, dilapidated buildings, and so on. In addition, molds, fungus, and bacteria thrive. The slightest scratch can fester quickly. Treat promptly with antiseptic and keep any wounds clean.
Cuba’s tap water is questionable. Drink bottled water, which is widely available. Don’t brush your teeth using suspect water. Milk is pasteurized, and dairy products in Cuba are usually safe.
Diarrhea: The change in diet may briefly cause diarrhea or constipation. Most cases of diarrhea are caused by microbial bowel infections resulting from contaminated food. Don’t eat uncooked fish or shellfish, uncooked vegetables, unwashed salads, or unpeeled fruit. Diarrhea is usually temporary, and many doctors recommend letting it run its course. If that’s not preferable, medicate with Lomotil or similar antidiarrheal product. Drink lots of liquid. Avoid alcohol and milk. If conditions don’t improve after three days, seek medical help.
Dysentery: Diarrhea accompanied by severe abdominal pain, blood in your stool, and fever requires immediate medical diagnosis. Tetracycline or ampicillin is normally used to cure bacillary dysentery. More complex treatment is required for amoebic dysentery.
Other Infections: Giardiasis, acquired from infected water, causes diarrhea, bloating, persistent indigestion, and weight loss. Intestinal worms can be contracted by walking barefoot on infested beaches, grass, or ground. Hepatitis A can be contracted through unhygienic foods or contaminated water (salads and unpeeled fruits are major culprits). The main symptoms are stomach pains, loss of appetite, yellowing skin and eyes, and extreme tiredness. The much rarer hepatitis B is usually contracted through unclean needles, blood transfusions, or unprotected sex.
Sunburn and Skin Problems
The tropical sun can burn even through light clothing or shade. Use a suncream or sunblock of at least SPF 15. Bring sunscreen; it’s not readily available beyond beach resorts in Cuba. Wear a wide-brimmed hat. Calamine lotion and aloe gel will soothe light burns; for more serious burns, use steroid creams.
Sun glare can cause conjunctivitis; wear sunglasses. Prickly heat is an itchy rash, normally caused by clothing that is too tight or in need of washing; this, and athlete’s foot (a fungal infection) are best treated by airing the skin and washing your clothes. Ringworm, another fungal infection, shows up as a ring, most commonly on the scalp and groin; it’s treated with over-the-counter ointments.
Dehydration and Heat Problems
The tropical humidity and heat can sap your body fluids like blotting paper. Leg cramps, exhaustion, dizziness, and headaches are signs of dehydration. Drink lots of water. Avoid alcohol.
Excessive exposure to too much heat can cause potentially fatal heat stroke. Excessive sweating, extreme headaches, and disorientation leading to possible convulsions and delirium are symptoms. Emergency medical care is essential.
The common cold (gripe, pronounced GREE-pay, or catarro cubano) is a pandemic among Cubans, often brought on by the debilitating effects of constantly shifting from overly air-conditioned interiors to sultry outdoor heat.
Snakes (culebras) are common in Cuba; they’re non-venomous. Scorpions (alacranes) also exist; their venom can cause nausea and fever but is not usually serious. In the wild, watch where you’re treading or putting your hands.
Crocodiles are a serious threat in swampy coastal areas and estuaries; don’t swim in rivers! Most areas inhabited by crocodiles, such as the Zapata swamps, are off-limits to foreigners without guides.
Mosquitoes abound. Repellent sprays and lotions are a must by day for many areas. Citronella candles, electric fans, and mosquito coils (espirales, which are rarely sold in Cuba) help keep mosquitoes at bay at night. Bites can easily become infected in the tropics; avoid scratching! Treat with antiseptics or antibiotics. Antihistamine and hydrocortisone can help relieve itching.
Malaria isn’t present in Cuba. However, mosquitoes do transmit dengue fever, which is present. Its symptoms are similar to those for malaria, with severe headaches and high fever and, unlike malaria, additional severe pain in the joints, for which it is sometimes called “breaking bones disease.” It is not recurring. There is no cure; dengue fever must run its course. The illness can be fatal (death usually results from internal hemorrhaging).
Chiggers (coloradillas) inhabit tall grasslands. Their bites itch like hell. Nail polish apparently works (over the bites, not on the nails) by suffocating the beasts.
Tiny, irritating jejenes (known worldwide as “no-see-ums”), sand flies about the size of a pinpoint, inhabit beaches and marshy coastal areas. This nuisance is active only around dawn and dusk, when you should avoid the beach. They are not fazed by bug repellent, but Avon’s Skin-So-Soft supposedly works.
Jellyfish (agua mala) are common along the Atlantic shore, especially in winter and spring. They can give a painful, even dangerous, welt that leaves a permanent scar. Dousing in vinegar can help neutralize the stingers, while calamine and antihistamines should be used to soothe the pain. In Caribbean waters, a microscopic mollusk that locals call caribe can induce all manner of illnesses, from diarrhea and severe fever to itching. It, too, is more frequent in winter.
Sea urchins (erizos) are common beneath the inshore water line and around coral reefs. These softball-size creatures are surrounded by long spines that will pierce your skin and break off if you touch or step on them. Excruciatingly painful! You’ll have to extract the spines.
Rabies, though rare in Cuba, can be contracted through the bite of an infected animal. It’s always fatal unless treated.
Sexually Transmitted Diseases
Cubans are promiscuous, and sexually transmitted diseases are common, although the risk of contracting AIDS in Cuba is extremely low (the rate of infection is among the world’s lowest). Use condoms (preservativos), widely available in Cuba.
Travel, hot climates, and a change of diet or health regimen can play havoc with your body, leading to yeast and other infections. For women, a douche of diluted vinegar or lemon juice can help alleviate yeast infections. Loose, cotton underwear may help prevent infections such as candida, typified by itching and a white, cheesy discharge. A foul-smelling discharge accompanied by a burning sensation may be trichomoniasis, usually caught through intercourse.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Cuba, 5th Edition