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Health and well-being in Costa Rica

With abundant, inexpensive fresh fruits and vegetables, it is easy to eat well in Costa Rica especially if you learn to cook local dishes.

Costa Rica is popular with expats for its climate and many take advantage of it, indulging in cycling, running, surfing and other outdoor pursuits. Tennis and golf are popular sports among expats. Team sports also play a role and many people count soccer as a hobby. Even those who simply walk or hike are helping to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

The country often makes the news when the latest Happy Planet Index is released, always ranking highly and often coming first. Many expats move for these reasons: to make the most of a relaxing lifestyle, getting back to basics and enjoying simple pleasures, close to nature. 

Health and safety risks

The main health risks in Costa Rica are related to mosquito-borne diseases. All travellers should avoid mosquito bites particularly between dawn and dusk.

Zika Virus

The World Health Organisation classifies Costa Rica as a country with ongoing risk of Zika transmission (March 2018.) There is a link between women who have Zika during pregnancy and certain congenital conditions. If you or your partner is pregnant before you move, you may consider delaying your relocation until the baby is born, but this is a personal decision and not essential. There are plenty of ways to protect yourself and closely monitor your pregnancy. Learn more in our Zika FAQs by clicking here.

The following chart shows recent suspected and confirmed cases of Zika in Costa Rica:

Costa Rica Health and Wellness Graphic Costa Rica Health and Wellness Graphic

(Data from Costa Rica Ministry of Health, as reproduced by PAHO/WHO)

Dengue fever

Cases have been falling since the middle of 2016 but the risk of contracting dengue fever are still high. Heavy sustained rainfall in early 2018 gave rise to outbreaks in many areas.

Most infections produce no symptoms or result in mild symptoms, often described as similar to a bad hangover alongside a dose of flu. Between four and 10 days after the mosquito bite a sudden onset of fever, headache, muscle and joint pains may occur. A rash may develop. Within a few days the illness usually resolves and serious complications are uncommon. In 1%–2% of cases dengue can progress to a more serious form, severe dengue, which can be fatal.

There is no anti-viral treatment or inoculation for dengue fever but people who are experiencing symptoms should consult a doctor for treatment.

Chikungunya virus

In February 2018 it was announced that there were five confirmed cases of Chikungunya virus. Symptoms include fever, joint and muscle pain, nausea, headaches and a rash. You should take steps to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes.

Always consult your doctor four to six weeks before going to Costa Rica and ensure you have appropriate international medical insurance in place.

Defending against mosquitoes

Top tip: get a fan. Many lighter repellents containing 10%-30% DEET don’t seem to deter mosquitoes, including sprays and plug-ins, unless you can find some 100% DEET. Light, tight clothing doesn’t always protect you, but heavier looser items do more. Mosquito nets are essential for beds, though it is important to remember that an exposed arm or leg next to the net will be a prime target for mosquitoes and victims wake up in the morning with concentrated areas of bites. If you want to sit, watch TV or have dinner in an open-air setting (as many houses have), get a big fan and direct it towards you. Mosquitoes find it hard to land on something if wind is blowing. By combining all of the deterrent, repellent methods you’ll be as safe and bite-free as you can be.

Animal attacks

There are lots of poisonous and dangerous creatures in Costa Rica, from crocodiles and pumas to ants and snakes. Learn more about the main risks in our Costa Rican wildlife guide.

Altitude sickness

There is a risk of altitude illness when travelling to destinations of 2,500 metres (8,200 feet) or higher. Although little of Costa Rica is this high, there are towns as high as 3,500 metres. Rapid ascent without a period of acclimatisation can put travellers at a higher risk.

The three main syndromes are:

  • Acute mountain sickness (AMS)
    • Headache
    • Loss of appetite, nausea, or vomiting
    • Fatigue or weakness
    • Dizziness or light-headedness
    • Difficulty sleeping
  • High-altitude cerebral oedema (HACE).
    • Loss of mental ability and co-ordination (similar to drunkenness)
    • Loss of memory
  • High-altitude pulmonary oedema (HAPE). This usually occurs on the second night after an ascent, and affects young, fit climbers and trekkers more.Extreme fatigue
    • Breathlessness at rest
    • Fast, shallow breathing
    • Cough, possibly with frothy or pink sputum
    • Chest tightness
    • Loss of colour in the lips
    • Drowsiness

If you have symptoms of AMS, do not continue your ascent. HACE and HAPE require immediate descent and medical treatment.

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