The mosquito bite survival guide
Few insects can ruin a pleasant evening outdoors as quickly or completely as mosquitoes. First, that incessant whining sets in around your ears. Then, you start to feel the hot pinprick of mosquito bites at ankle and arm, one after another, until you can't take it anymore.
It's enough to send you storming inside, slamming doors and cursing their insect origins. But the worst of it is, the mosquito bites don't immediately fade away. You are left with ugly red bumps that swell and itch, no matter how fiercely you scratch, for the rest of the night.
The way mosquito experts tell it, the bugs have been a plague on man since the beginning. In fact, mosquitoes were here before people, going back more than 200 million years. And in all that time, we still haven't found a way to rid ourselves of them or their annoying bites.
However, there are things you can do to prevent mosquito bites and treat the allergic reaction when the bugs manage to slip past your defenses. A little care when you venture outdoors and some judicious applications of medicine, and you will come out a winner.
Follow along now as we delve into the subject of mosquitoes and their quest for human blood.
When a mosquito bites
It can feel awful personal when you're sitting on the deck with a cold drink, trying to unwind after work, and an aggressive mosquito begins to dive bomb you. But, the attack has nothing to do with you; it's simply a biological imperative.
Females are typically the only mosquitoes that feed on blood, and they do it because they need the protein to help develop their eggs. Without it, the eggs don't mature to the point that the female mosquito can lay them for hatching.
The female tracks you down by sight, smell and feel.
Her head consists mainly of two giant compound eyes able to pick up movement and bright colors from long distances. At 100 feet, she can smell the carbon dioxide you exhale and the lactic acid that gathers on your skin from sweat. A little nearer, and your body heat begins to draw her like the “Hot Doughnuts Now” sign at Krispy Kreme.
The mosquito lights on your exposed skin and slides a serrated proboscis into you, searching for a capillary. At the same time, she injects saliva that contains enzymes to dull the pain and keep your blooding from clotting.
Left uninterrupted, she will draw blood until her abdomen is full.
What do mosquito bites look like?
Those enzymes are the problem.
Your body doesn't like them because they are foreign invaders, so your mast cells release histamine, a naturally occurring substance which rushes to the site and causes blood vessel to enlarge. Sometimes the body releases too much histamine. The result is mosquito bite swelling, or what's called a “wheal.” The area around the bite rises, turns red and begins to itch.
How much and for how long varies from person to person, but swollen mosquito bites generally are about the size of a dime and last about a day. Doctors at the Mayo Clinic report that, in some people with extreme sensitivities, mosquito bites can swell to the size of grapefruits and linger for days.
And occasionally, there are people who experience anaphylaxis, a severe reaction to mosquito bites. When that happens, the person's throat can swell shut, restricting breathing, the person's skin may break out into hives – itchy red bumps – anywhere on the body, not just at the bite. While rare, the reaction can be life-threatening, according to the Mayo.
WebMD reports that repeated mosquito bites over a lifetime may help people become immune to the saliva, or can have the opposite effect, making a person even more sensitive.
Sweet relief: How to stop mosquito bites from itching
There are a lot suggestions for soothing the discomfort of an allergic reaction to a mosquito bite. Some are common-sense, some medical and some just a little odd. But they all have advocates who swear they work.
Among the suggestions:
- Don't scratch the bite. That only irritates your skin further and could lead to infection. Give it a light washing with soap and cool water.
- Try calamine lotion. The pink goo, a favorite of moms everywhere, is a mixture of zinc oxide and iron oxide and works as a cooling, all-purpose soother. The Food and Drug Administration declared in the early '90s that it's ineffective in treating itches, but doctors still recommend it. You might also try Caladryl, which contains both calamine and an analgesic to help relieve the sting.
- Apply an OTC hydrocortisone cream. The cream contains corticosteroids which will counteract the effect of the histamines and help reduce the swelling, which should give you some relief from the mosquito bite itch. An anti-inflammatory such as ibuprofen will also help.
- Use a cold compress or icepack. Histamines dilate the blood vessels, filling the affected area with excess blood. Cold causes the vessels to constrict, so that the amount of blood is reduced around the bite.
- Take an antihistamine. This won't work immediately, but an OTC medication like Benadryl will prevent histamines from binding with receptors at the blood vessels. The vessels in the bite area return to normal, and the swelling and itching dissipates. Remember, you can take an antihistamine before going outside to minimize your allergic reaction to a mosquito bite.
- Dab on some baking soda paste. For some reason, the Mayo Clinic doctors – and dozens of home-remedy advocates – suggest adding a bit of water to regular baking soda, then applying the paste to the mosquito bite. The reason isn't clear, but it apparently helps relieve the itch.
- Go homeopathic. Suggestions range from rubbing the bite with the inside of a banana peel to dabbing on toothpaste to covering the bite with mud. Dr. Alan Greene, pediatrician and prolific health writer, suggests that some natural anti-inflammatory remedies such evening primrose oil may also help reduce the swelling and itching associated with mosquito bites.
These are some of the steps you can take in the hours immediately after a bite. But remember, if you start feeling sick in the days ahead, particularly if you feel flu-like symptoms that include neck stiffness, headache, nausea and fever, then it's possible that mosquito bite left you with something worse than just an itch.
Go to the doctor. Period.
But wait... why not just prevent mosquito bites?
The best way to treat a mosquito bite really is to avoid getting bitten in the first place. Simple as it sounds, this can be a real challenge, especially during the summer or in warm climates.
Obviously, you'll want to avoid the places where mosquitoes tend to congregate – which is anywhere near water.
If you don't have to be around swamps, marshes, rivers, canals, lakes and ponds, then don't. Otherwise, at least get clear of the water from dusk until a few hours after dark, when the bugs are out hunting for blood meals.
Unless you take certain precautions, you may also have to abandon your own backyard during the evening hours, so you'll need to do some work on your environment.
Get rid of any standing water around the yard because it will become a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Keep the grass and bushes trimmed so they don't have resting places. Make sure all your windows have screens, and that they are in good shape, and consider screening in the back porch or deck.
Install a mosquito control device, such as a mosquito trap that uses light, gas emissions and heat to emulate a mosquito's human targets. The traps attract the mosquitoes, then kill them before they get to you. You can use these devices in conjunction with citronella candles that are reported to repel mosquitoes and subdued lighting or yellow outdoor bulbs that aren't as likely to draw hungry insects.
When you do go outside, try to keep as much of your skin covered as possible, and avoid bright colors that will attract the attention of mosquitoes. Use an insect repellent containing DEET on the bare areas.
Dr. Greene also recommends vitamin B1 – 25 to 50 milligrams three times a day – or garlic to produce a skin odor that is supposed to naturally repel mosquitoes. It takes about two weeks of regular doses for the B1 to become effective, he says.
The bottom line is, there's just no way to guarantee that you'll never feel the sting of a mosquito feeding on your blood. The occasional mosquito bite is inevitable, and that's how it is. But there's no reason you have to suffer.
Hopefully, you can use some of these tips to get a little relief when it happens.