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Mosquitoes and Cellulitis in Korea – My Travel Health Disaster

skin infection in South Korea
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I loathe mosquitoes. I feel that I am not alone in this feeling. Their sound irritates me, the fact that they live off of the blood of the living disturbs me, the fact that they spread disease so easily and frequently gets my blood boiling, and I get super riled up by how their bites are visible and itch so intensely. They are scum. The only pleasure I get from their existence is noticing them crushed on my hand after a successful death blow.

As we have discussed in many previous posts, mosquitoes are a prolific transmitter of diseases such as yellow fever, malaria and many others. I have been lucky enough to not have had any of these diseases in my life, but that does not mean that I haven’t felt the wrath of the mosquito on my travels abroad.

My first, and possibly my worst, travel health issue occurred when I was eighteen and traveling to South Korea for three weeks. It was my first big trip on my own, and it took about three days for my travel ignorance to rear its ugly head and violently alter the course of my trip. Many looks of disgust/sympathy, a lot of ointment, an antibiotic regimen, and a shot of steroids into my butt later and I had my first true travel health disaster story. Now, I share it with you.

Finding My Zen Through My Itchiness


I had been in South Korea for about three or four days when my girlfriend at the time, a South Korean national, told me that her mom and her had set up for us to stay overnight at a Buddhist temple high up in the mountains. Needless to say, I was very excited about this idea and was ready to go.

After a bus ride and a small hike, we found our way up to the temple. We were given the opportunity to wander around the temple grounds and enjoy the breathtaking views of the mountains and the rain forest that surrounded us. We enjoyed a few meals, studied the intricate art and architecture and found our way to our separate rooms (no co-ed rooms in a temple).

In my room I met my roomie for the night, an early 20’s Korean man who spoke even less English than I spoke Korean. What a pair we made. Night time had come, and the temperature had not dropped. Even high up in the mountains it was still plenty hot, and there was little to no air flow in our small shared quarters. We were given a mat, a blanket and a pillow for our sleeping comfort and we found our ways to bed early as we were planning on awaking around 3:00 AM for the late night prayer ceremony.

I was boiling hot and we had a mat that covered our door, so mosquitoes were the last thing on my mind. I just wanted to try to sleep as comfortably as possible. My roommate and I shared a few nods, smiles and waves and found our way to sleep. The blanket was of no use to me in this stifling heat, so I slept on top of it and slowly drifted off into restless sleep.

I awoke for the prayer ceremony noticing that the mat had been pulled away from the door and that there were a few mosquitoes buzzing around, but thought nothing of it at the time. I exited my room to enjoy the ceremony, and returned to my room after to hit the sack.

In the morning I awoke to my body being covered in bites, especially on my legs and feet. I hadn’t cut my nails in a week or so, and I am a notorious scratcher, so I was deaf to the pleas of my girlfriend as I scratched away. I have a technique where I scratch around the bites instead of on them to prevent from opening them up and turning into scars. What I thought was an ingenious idea, actually became my downfall.

After a bus ride home full of endless scratching, and a restless night of even more scratching I awoke the next day to my travel health nightmare. The majority of my bites had turned into quarter-sized, scarlet welts all over my legs. On the outside of these bites there was a lighter red, like a mild sunburn, spreading out and away from the welts.

In some areas this lighter red color had connected with other welts to form a swath of unhappy flesh. My affliction was at its most serious on my right foot. The majority of my foot was some shade of red, and there was slight swelling.

My Korean hosts were obviously quite distressed by the sight of me, and immediately began to slather all sorts of remedies on my legs and feet. I wasn’t going to let this ruin my trip, so I did my best not to itch and continued on with the trip. Seeing a doctor or slowing down were the last things on my mind, I had flown a long way to see Korea, and I wasn’t going to let some damn mosquito bites ruin it for me. Unfortunately, the next day, things got a whole lot more serious.

Teenage Hubris and a Shot in the Butt


After a nights rest, where I undoubtedly was scratching my legs and feet in my sleep, I awoke with a yelp as the entirety of my legs were now covered in red. My right foot had swollen to almost double its size and the welts had turned a terrifying, dark burgundy color. When I stood and walked, I could feel the fluid shaking my leg and right foot.

The best way for me to describe the sensation is this: imagine a thick layer of jell-o inserted directly under your skin, that had stretched your skin to an uncomfortably tight level, and with each step you could feel the jell-o jiggle in a way only Mr. Cosby could enjoy. It was a sensation that filled me with nausea, a sensation that I still have phantom feels and memories of to this day. I had officially entered into the depths of travel health disaster territory.

I decided to persevere, taking a few family remedies and some ointments over the counter as I continued on my journey around the country. I met more and more of my girlfriends family and friends, all of whom completely lost it over my ailment.

If I hadn’t stuck out enough as a six foot blonde haired, blue eyed, white dude walking around Korea, now that I looked like a leper on top of it all, I was basically a walking freak show.

It was several days of wandering and my legs not getting any better before I finally agreed to go to a doctor. With the help of my girlfriend and her mother, the translation took place, and I could tell via the looks and eye-brow raises, that the nurses and doctors thought I was crazy for not having come in earlier.

I was eventually told that they wanted me to head back to another room to get a shot of steroids to help fight the infection. They told me the infection was cellulitis, or an infection of the skin.

When I entered into the back room I rolled up my sleeve and presented my arm. The Korean nurse, who spoke no English, shook her head and pointed to my pants. I stared at her for a second, before she pantomimed me taking down my pants. I stared at her in disbelief and slowly turned, unbuttoned my pants and dropped them to the floor.

She motioned for me to bend over a bit, and she measured the shot and moved towards my quivering bottom. She began to lightly pat my ass to soften the blow as the needle entered my flesh. A moment later she smiled, placed a band-aid on my butt and motioned for me to pull up my pants. I gave her a half-smile, pulled up my pants, and shuffled out of the room.

From that point on, my ailment slowly but surely got better, finally reaching a level of complete healing about two or three days before I departed. In total I had been afflicted for about fourteen of my nineteen days abroad.

The cellulitis had affected my ability to walk for long, continued distances and had been both socially and physically annoying. Those mosquitoes had won again, but thankfully, I was able to persevere through the help of my girlfriend, her family and friends, and some doctors and nurses.

Hindsight is 20/20


All of this could have been avoided if I had just been a more savvy traveler. Here are a few things I could have done differently to try and avoid such a disaster.

  • Wear Bug Spray! I hate bug spray, hate how it feels on my skin, but it works and you know what I hate more than bug spray on my skin? Cellulitis!
  • Make sure I have a mosquito net, or cover up if I don’t. Again, it seems simple, but travel mosquito nets may seem dorky, but they are very handy and can really save you in areas infested with the deadly bugs.
  • Keep my fingernails short. This works for anywhere you go. Fingernails are notorious at holding bacteria which causes infection. Did this cause my leg infection? Not sure, but shorter nails wouldn’t have hurt.
  • When there’s a problem, see a doctor right away! Don’t be too proud to seek medical services when traveling. Not only do you not want to allow anything to linger, but delaying medical attention often results in a bigger hiccup on your travels than the first visit would have.
  • Know where I’m traveling so I can be prepared. Many travel plans are made on the fly, but making sure you are as prepared for your trip as possible can help lead to a safer and happier travel experience.

That’s my story and I’m sticking by it. I loved my trip to Korea, and had the time of my life. As the saying goes, whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger, or in this case, makes me smarter. I am a much savvier traveler now than I used to be and that’s because I take every mistake and disaster as a learning experience. It’s usually the simplest things that can prevent you from having a disaster on the road, and it is taking the extra time to be prepared that will keep you safe, happy and healthy on your travels. As always, stay safe, enjoy the world, and happy travels.

This post was written by Sam Gruber, an avid traveler and an aspiring Child Life specialist. Read his random thoughts at slippysamwise.com.

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