As winter fades away and the warm spring sun returns, you’re probably as eager as ever to get outside and enjoy all that nature has to offer…well, maybe not everything nature has to offer. As soon as you take your first hike of the season or spend some time fishing at the lake, you’re likely to come home with the sure mark of one of nature’s most bothersome pest – mosquitos.
As it stands, you could probably go the rest of your life without receiving one of these itchy, inflamed bug bites and be fully pleased with your outdoor experiences. But mosquito bites are inevitable to some degree, even with preventative precautions. As such, it’s in your best interest to learn all there is to know about mosquito bites, from their source and their symptoms to the best, most modern treatment methods.
Interestingly enough, mosquitos don’t bite humans without reason. In fact, not even all mosquitos bite humans – only the females have a taste for blood. But even so, there’s some interesting science behind how and why mosquitos bite us, all of which is important to understand when picking a prevention method.
While many traditional methods have been scientifically proven to be effective, some modern plant-based methods hold further options beyond DEET alone. You can even choose to make changes around your property to discourage mosquito breeding.
All in all, there’s a lot to know about mosquitos, from their sources and hunting methods to the best methods for treating their stinging bites. With a full understanding of mosquito bites under your belt, you’ll be able to return to the great outdoors and enjoy your time fully, even if a few flying bloodsuckers try to get in the way.
The Cause of Mosquito Bites
In so many words, mosquito bites are not caused by a “bite” so much as there are caused by a tiny skin puncture and your body’s natural reaction in turn. Mosquitos (females exclusively) “bite” in this manner in order to siphon off some of your blood, which they convert into proteins to create their own eggs.
The mosquito bite process is painless in total, with many not noticing a bite until the blood-filled mosquito has flown away. But even so, the root cause of mosquito bites is important to understand so that you can be alert for the presence of mosquitos and take preventative actions accordingly.
The Biting Process
This full process begins when a female mosquito has identified a creature with blood appropriate for feeding upon (because in fact, certain mosquito breeds feed on everything from humans to birds to small woodland creatures). This process (described in detail below) involves the mosquito smelling out prey through several hyper-acute smelling methods.
Once they’ve found a target, the mosquito will land on a portion of the targets exposed exterior. In humans, this would be any piece of skin not covered fully by clothing. This is why many folks acquire many mosquito bites on their ankles, neck, and feet (if they are wearing sandals or flip-flops). You should opt for long pants and long sleeves if you are thinking about venturing off into prime mosquito territory.
After landing on the exposed skin, the mosquito uses a unique, needle-like mouthpart to pierce the skin with the intent of reaching a blood vein or artery. (As noted, only female mosquitos feature this mouthpart because only they “bite” in order to acquire nourishment for their eggs.) This hunt-and-peck method is not always effective on the first try, so the mosquito may reinsert several times before hitting a blood source (as seen in a collection of bites in one area).
While the mosquito is in the process of its “bite,” it injects a type of saliva that allows it to more effectively siphon off your blood. Your body’s reaction to this saliva is, in part, what causes the bug bite to itch in the long run (as described below). After about 90 seconds of blood siphoning on average, the mosquito withdraws and flies away, leaving the first signs of what will become a raised, itchy bug bite.
Why Do Mosquito Bites Itch?
As described above, one of the key aspects of the mosquito biting process involves the injection of a small bit of mosquito saliva. Specifically, this saliva contains a specialized anti-coagulant that prevents your blood from clotting up as it is siphoned off by the mosquito. Moreover, this anti-coagulant prevents your blood from clotting up around the mosquito, which would effectively trap it with its proboscis still inserted.
As this specialized saliva is inserted, your body’s immune system immediately reacts and recognizes the material as a foreign, and potentially harmful, entity. Your immune system then mounts an attack to eliminate the saliva using a protein called histamine. In effect, your body responds in much the same manner as it would if you had inhaled an allergen – that is to say, with a histamine-guided attack.
This introduction of histamine causes your damaged blood vessel to swell, allowing for more blood to reach the damaged location and heal it. This enlargement causes the classic bug bite bump, while the presence of histamine at these sites causes the bothersome itching. Often, antihistamine treatments are used to decrease both the swelling and itching (as described below).
Of note, not all people react to mosquito bites in this typical fashion. Typically, children’s bodies react more strongly given that their immune system has less experience fighting off such contaminations. Along the same lines, adults who travel to locations with new mosquito species are prone to react more strongly for much the same reason.
Symptoms of a Mosquito Bite
The symptoms associated with a mosquito bite are well known such that even small children can recognize their uncomfortable presence after a long summer day spent outdoors. Generally speaking, the Mayo Clinic identifies the following symptoms as being the most probable to appear on an average person bitten by a mosquito:
- Puffy, reddish (and sometimes whitish) bumps that appear minutes after the bite
- Itchy, reddish-brown bumps that appear at the bite location after a day or two
- Small blisters at the bite location (rather than or in addition to simple bumps)
- Dark bruised spots surrounding a bite location
Any of these several symptoms may appear alone or in tandem, based primarily on what type of mosquito created the bite and how your body reacted to the specific intrusion. For the most part, these symptoms are easy to treat through OTC or natural methods (as described below).
However, these are not the only mosquito bite symptoms. Some more severe reactions have been known to occur in children and individuals with weak immune systems. Furthermore, these following reactions are more likely for adults who have been bitten by a mosquito species not native to their home region. These more severe symptoms include:
- Larger-than-average swelling and red discoloration
- Low-grade fever
- Hives (at the bite location or on other parts of the afflicted appendage)
- Swollen lymph nodes
Should these more severe reactions appear on yourself or your children, consider contacting your doctor as soon as possible.
Risk Associated with Mosquito Bites
Mosquito bites carry a variety of risks, both major and minor, that you should take into consideration when choosing a viable prevention plan. While these risks range dramatically in intensity and rarity, they should not be disregarded as even the most innocuous mosquito bite can spiral into a severe series of complications.
As would be expected, the most immediate risk associated with mosquito bites is the typical discomfort resulting from isolated itchiness. Depending on an individual’s level of concentration, this level of discomfort can range from negligible to very distracting. This can also depend greatly on the volume of bites experienced at one time.
Children are more prone to experiencing these minor risks, due to a less-experienced immune response and a lower sense of self-control against voluntarily scratching the itchy bite bumps. This itching can lead to further minor risks, such as infection at the bite location.
Though this risk is considered substantially lower within the United States, mosquito bites carry a non-zero chance of transmitting one of several very severe diseases to both children and adults. Several of these diseases include West Nile virus, malaria, yellow fever, and dengue fever (all of which have been documented in the US recently).
Each of these diseases comes with their own set of unique and highly unpleasant symptoms that can lead to lasting bodily harm if improperly treated. In particular, there is a heightened risk for acquiring these mosquito-borne diseases in tropical areas, as well as the American south.
When traveling abroad to mosquito-prone regions of the world, you should be extra mindful of the risk posed by these harmful diseases. Internationally, malaria alone caused nearly 438,000 deaths worldwide in 2015, primarily in regions outside the US and Europe. The World Health Organization provides the following information on which mosquito species found around the world are known to carry certain diseases:
- Dengue fever
- Lymphatic filariasis
- Rift Valley fever
- Yellow fever
- Lymphatic filariasis
- Japanese encephalitis
- Lymphatic filariasis
- West Nile fever
When traveling to mosquito-laden locations around the world, complete some research in advance to learn which species are native to that region and if there is a heightened risk for exposure to these diseases during the period in which you are visiting. Your doctor may also provide guidance for preventing exposure to these diseases while abroad.
Treatments for Mosquito Bites
Mosquito bites are very bothersome, between the itching and the inflammation. As such, some types of treatment are often warranted for children and adults put off or distracted by these symptoms. Many of the best, most effective treatments come in over-the-counter forms, including medicated ointments and sprays.
However, these are not the only options available for treating and mitigating the effects of mosquito bites. Over the centuries, human cultures around the world have come up with a variety of home remedies, many of which are designed to sooth the itching resulting from a mosquito bite. Though these methods are not scientifically proven, they have been found to be generally effective to some degree.
Also, all of the treatments described below hinge on minimization of contact with the afflicted area. In other words, avoid scratching as much as possible to allow the afflicted area to heal and decrease the amount of itchy histamine at the site in turn.
Perhaps the most common treatment for itchy mosquito bites, calamine lotion is specifically designed to relieve pain, itching, and discomfort associated with histamine-type reactions. In addition to reducing itching from mosquito bites, this same lotion is often used to reduce itching from poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac.
In particular, calamine lotion uses a form of zinc oxide, as well as a small portion of ferric oxide, as its active ingredients in relieving itching pains. This compound helps soothe the inflamed area over several hours before requiring further application.
A topical hydrocortisone cream is also a worthwhile option that many parents turn to when helping to treat their children’s mosquito bites. In particular, this type of treatment works to cut down on inflammation in and around the bite, reducing the amount of swelling and discoloration overall.
In general, hydrocortisone – with its steroid-based compounds – is considered to be best suited for treating allergy-related inflammation across the skin. However, use of a hydrocortisone cream may be warranted for children suffering more acute reactions to a mosquito bite or for adults with notably weak immune responses to allergens.
Though this option isn’t necessarily purchased from a pharmacy, many doctors recommend applying an ice pack to an afflicted mosquito bite as soon as possible to decrease the likelihood and degree of swelling. This follows the same premise of applying ice to a large bruise, such that you are decreasing the temperature and thus the inflammation taking place sub-dermally.
When applying an ice pack, try to avoid placing it directly on the skin. Instead, place a layer – such as a towel or washcloth – between the skin and the ice pack. This prevents too much of the cooling effect from infiltrating the skin as well as allowing for better temperature distribution over a broadly irritated area.
The vast majority of mosquito bite treatment methods are topical in nature and need to be reapplied regularly to remain effective. Antihistamine medications are different because they are usually taken orally and last several hours by targeting each afflicted region with its anti-itch relief.
Unlike other OTC treatment methods, antihistamines directly target the cause of itching in mosquito bites, that being the compound histamine. As such, this medicinal option is often used to treat allergic reaction of all kinds, of which mosquito bite itchiness is one.
Antihistamines are available in tablet, capsule, and liquid forms, making this treatment option to adults and children alike. Dosage is usually based upon age and should always follow the specific guidelines outlined on the product’s packaging.
Most notably, antihistamines are known to cause dizziness and drowsiness, often within an hour or two of taking the prescribed dosage. As such, this treatment option is not recommended for folks who work in jobs where alertness and awareness are key aspects of workplace safety.
Not every treatment for mosquito bites is medicinal in nature or even necessarily connected to a specific aspect of the mosquito bite’s inflammation. Instead, the following home remedies are several methods that families across generations have used to waylay the primary annoyances of mosquito bites.
Each of the following methods has not been scientifically compared to OTC treatments and should not be used exclusively as an alternative method to proven treatment techniques. Instead, these methods can be used when more traditional treatment techniques have either been ineffective, unresponsive, or unavailable for one reason or another.
Folks who contracted chicken pox in their youth are probably well familiar with oatmeal baths. Much like the individual pock marks associated with varicella-zoster virus, mosquito bites are persistently itchy and often require some type of mediation when they appear on children. This method can help relieve this itching, especially if the afflicted individual has bites over several parts of their body.
The “oatmeal” used in oatmeal baths is not the same type of oats one might eat for breakfast. Instead, these specialized “colloidal oats” can be purchased at the store or made at home. These oats are better able to spread out in the bath water and soak into the skin, allowing for moisturization and a general decrease in itching sensations across the skin’s surface.
Traditionally, aloe vera and its various derivative products have been used to sooth the heated pains of a sunburn. However, the same properties within aloe vera that allow it to soothe burns also allows it to reduce the overall inflammation felt in mosquito bites. This, in turn, may help decrease the urge to itch if applied regularly.
Aloe vera comes in a variety of different forms, ranging from gels and creams to the original plant itself. Often, aloe vera creams and lotions in particular pack in nutrients that encourage the dermal healing needed to close up mosquito bites in a timely manner.
While basil is well-known for lending its flavor to the best Italian pasta and pizzas, some families also swear on basil’s ability to soothe itchy bug bites. Some preliminary studies back up these views in isolating the compound eugenol for its natural anti-itching properties. Using basil as a mosquito bite treatment comes with the obvious side effect that the user will smell like basil until they bathe again.
For quick relief, several basil leaves can be roughly chopped and applied directly to the skin. Also, a specialized basil rub can be prepared by combining two cups of warm water and one-half ounce of dried basil leaves. After allowing this to steep until cooled, this rub can be gently applied to the skin with a washcloth.
Why Do Mosquitos Bite Us?
In order to choose a prudent mosquito bite prevention method, you should pause to first consider why and how mosquitos bite folks in the first place. As is the case with many animals and insects in nature, mosquitoes are driven to feed and breed nearly constantly. Female mosquitoes, in particular, have evolved to draw the energy needed to produce their eggs from blood, which itself can come from humans as well as many other animal species.
Among the many animals available for mosquitos to prey upon, several aspects of human physiology make us particularly prone to targeting. Generally speaking, humans “smell” the best to mosquitos, who primarily use a mix of olfactory organs including its antennae and palps to help locate and identify their next target.
These palps, in particular, can clue us into what mosquitoes are looking for in a target. Given that these palps can detect CO2 concentrations up to 150 feet away, one can conclude that hunting mosquitos use CO2 concentrations to identify living targets (given that CO2 is produced as part of a regular breathing cycle). Mosquitos may also pick up the unique smells produced by the microscopic bacteria on human skin, especially as more new bacteria are introduced in sweat.
Current research also indicates that mosquitos may also be attracted to some undetected metric of blood type. Japanese researchers have found that in a controlled environment, folks with O type blood are more likely to be bitten than folks with other blood types (A, B, or AB).
Preventing Mosquito Bites
While it may be challenging to prevent 100% of all mosquito bites, there are several different methods you can implement in your daily life that that can make a noticeable difference. This is especially the case if you live in a wooded area or near a body of water.
While these traditional methods are well-known and recognized for their effectiveness, you may also consider some of these plant-based prevention solutions in order to further optimize your property’s inherent ability to keep mosquitos away. If you’re looking for a large scale solution to a lasting mosquito problem, you may even make a project out of these several source reduction methods.
DEET-based Insect Repellent
As the gold standard of mosquito prevention, DEET-based bug sprays remain the most widely available method for protecting the whole family from acquiring mosquito bites in the first place. DEET as a compound is unique in its composition as it is specifically engineered to interfere with olfactory proteins in a mosquito’s palps.
As a result, DEET-based sprays cause hungry mosquitos to go “nose blind” to your presence. This can be especially useful in a wooded space, where mosquitos are likely to swarm and attack in large, coordinated numbers. Also, these sprays tend to come in different strengths, allowing ordinary consumers to use less smelly variants compared to the full strength, full smell options.
Non-DEET Bug Repellents
Some scientific authorities also recognize several non-DEET sprays for their effectiveness while still maintaining a modest scent profile. Icaridin (sometimes called “picaridin”) is one prime example as it is often used in alternative bug sprays and provides a modest degree of protection against mosquitos in general. This is accomplished through a similar protein blocking method as used in DEET-based sprays.
The plant-based compound known as “oil of lemon eucalyptus” is also commercially sold as a DEET spray alternative. Generally, these sprays are advertised as being less irritating and less bitter smelling compared to DEET. Of note, neither of these alternative mosquito repellant options have been studied and conclusively found to repel Zika virus-carrying mosquitos.
When considering holistic options to decreasing the number of mosquitos flying around your outdoor social spaces, consider planting a few marigolds. Not only are these flowers radiant in color, but they have also been found to keep away whiteflies, squash bugs, aphids, tomato hornworms, Mexican bean beetles, and of course, mosquitos.
Many folks choose to plant marigolds around their vegetable gardens given this flower’s unique ability to keep away such a wide variety of insects. In particular, a compound called pyrethrum found within the flower’s body can be credited for this productive quality, earning it the title of “nature’s insecticide.”
Citronella grass is also another worthwhile natural option for keeping blood-sucking mosquitos away from your home. The citronella oil found in this species of grass has long been valued for its bug repelling qualities and as such, has been turned into a variety of consumer products, including candles.
As it turns out, the unaltered citronella grass provides many of the same properties without any need for conversion. As such, this grass – which can grow up to 6 feet tall – is best installed around a pool deck in order to provide a type of privacy barrier that also keeps mosquitos from poking their noses into your outdoor celebrations.
Though its name alludes to its exceptional ability to lure in felines, catnip (Nepeta cataria and sometimes called “catmint”) has also been found to have the exact opposite effect on mosquitos. In other words, their over-sensitive olfactory organs can’t stand the odor produced by catnip and thus will steer clear of any area with a patch or two of this mint family relative.
Folks with cats should, of course, consider planting some catnip in order to get extra use out of this natural mosquito repellant. However, interested gardeners should be aware that catnip can become invasive if not kept in check, requiring routine amending to keep in proper order.
Source Reduction Methods
Sometimes, reducing the threat of mosquitos on your property requires a more hands-on approach that goes beyond sprays and garden plant choices. These are just two examples of a project you can undertake in order to cut down on mosquito breeding habitat space.
Change Bird Bath Water
In order for female mosquitos to lay their eggs, they need a pool of standing water. While streams and lakes often won’t do the job, small pools of water such as a bird bath are an ideal spawning ground for these blood-sucking bugs.
Though some water is often splashed out by their intended users, bird baths are often filled with stagnant water that is prime real estate for an egg-laden mosquito. If the bird bath water is not refreshed regularly, you may find more and more newly-hatched mosquitos swarming around your home in the short-term.
Identify Run-Off Points
Depending on the layout of your yard, you may have begun to notice that rainwater run-off has a tendency to pool up in certain locations, such as ditches. As with bird baths, these pools of standing water are also prone to attracting female mosquitos looking to lay their eggs.
When working to identify these run-off points, be sure to check in wooded areas around your home. If rainwater has a tendency to form large puddles in the woods or fields near your home, know that these pools are also likely to attract mosquitos if they do not absorb into the ground quickly.
There’s no doubt about it – mosquito bites are one of the most annoying parts of outdoor summertime activities. But as it stands, you don’t need to take the reality of blood-sucking mosquitos sitting down. Instead, there’s a great deal you can do to plan for and counteract mosquito activity by changing key aspects of your property and greenery.
But if you do find yourself bitten by a mosquito or two, you can also inform yourself on the several symptoms that may appear in addition to the usual red bumps and itchiness. There is a variety of options when it comes to treatment as well, so take some time to consider the various OTC and home remedies available.
At the end of the day, understanding how mosquitos identify their pray and what kind of risks they carry can provide you with all the reason you need to seek out a reliable prevention method. Mosquitos sure aren’t going anywhere, so you should take the time and effort necessary to plan for their presence and to address their troublesome bites afterward.