Mosquito Bites: Treat Itching and Recognize Infections

female anopheles arabiensis mosquito
CDC / James Gathany

Mosquito bites; they're itchy, bumpy, and in very rare cases can become infected. What can you do to relieve uncomfortable symptoms and recognize infected bites so that you can better treat them?

Mosquito Bite Symptoms: A Spectrum

Nearly everyone on the planet is allergic to mosquito bites at least a little bit. All but the luckiest of us (or unluckiest, as I'll explain below) will get at least an itchy bump, which might turn red.

A small part of the population has no reaction at all while another small part of the population will experience a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis).

Mosquitoes are everywhere, so it's a good bet if you're old enough to read this then you've dealt with the itch of a mosquito bite. It's even more likely if you live in a hot, humid climate.

An infected mosquito bite can lead to significant swelling, be hot to the touch, and very red. In most cases, an infected bite needs to be seen by a physician rather than trying to treat it at home. They can prescribe a special cream and provide further recommendations. It's rare, but if left untreated, infected bites can develop cellulitis or abscesses.

Treatment for Common Mosquito Bites

Assuming you searched this information out because you're currently scratching away at one or more bites, here's what to do to treat the itch and typical reaction. These steps will also help prevent your mosquito bite from becoming an infected mosquito bite.

  • Avoid scratching. I know it's a tough thing to do, but scratching provides only temporary relief and scratching too much can result in breaking the skin. Once you break the skin you may start bleeding and you run the risk of an infection.
  • Use lotion. There are a few anti-itch lotions on the market that might help alleviate the itching of the common mosquito bite. The most effective lotions contain one or more of these ingredients: calamine, diphenhydramine (Benadryl), or hydro-cortisone.
  • Cold compresses. Ice packs may help alleviate itching. The ice constricts blood vessels in the area, which blocks blood flow to and from the bite. Whenever you use ice for anything, only keep the ice on for about 15 minutes and don't put ice or bags containing ice directly on the skin. Putting ice on the skin for too long can result in frostbite.
  • Homemade paste. You can make your own topical paste using meat tenderizer containing papain or using baking soda. Mix the powdered tenderizer or the baking soda with water to make a paste. Apply it liberally (meaning plenty of it) on your bite and re-apply often until the itching subsides.
  • Oral antihistamines. If you have serious allergic reactions to mosquito bites or you have a lot of bites, you might try oral antihistamines containing diphenhydramine, chlorpheniramine maleate, loratadine or cetirizine. Which of these works best for you will take a little trial and error to figure out.

The Dangers of Mosquito Bites

Mosquitos are vectors for certain diseases, some of which can be deadly. Within the United States, the most common and dangerous mosquito bourne disease is West Nile Virus. Outside the U.S., the list includes dengue fever, malaria, and yellow fever as well as West Nile.

Most of these mosquito-borne diseases look a lot like the flu when they start. Symptoms can show up anywhere between two days to two weeks after a mosquito bite. If you know you've been bitten by a mosquito and you develop any of the following, see a doctor.

Remember when I said you might actually be unlucky if you don't react to mosquito bites?

Here's why: if you don't know you were bitten by a mosquito, you might not take these symptoms as seriously as you should. If you're the type who doesn't notice mosquito bites, during the time of year when mosquitoes are out and about you should be extra wary of any of the symptoms listed above.

Preventing Mosquito Bites

In the case of mosquitoes, an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure. The only sure-fire way to avoid mosquito bites is to stay cooped up in the house, sealed from the outside world, when mosquitoes are active. Since that's also likely to be the time when you're the most interested in being outdoors, here are some things you can do.

  • Consider timing. Be aware that mosquitoes like sunrise and sunset the most. Dawn and dusk are when mosquitoes really are out in force and much more likely to bite. If possible, avoid being out at those times.
  • Use repellents to keep mosquitoes and other biting insects at bay. There are several types of mosquito repellent available on the market, but DEET has been shown to be the most effective.
  • Wear proper clothing. Wear long sleeves and treat the clothing with repellent as well. Permethrin is a repellent made for clothing that should never be applied directly to the skin.
  • Get rid of standing water. Mosquitoes breed in stagnant water, so getting rid of any buckets, puddles or untreated pools will help cut down on mosquitoes in your area. If you live in a swamp, you're on your own.
  • Install or fix your window screens. Keep the bugs out as much as possible.
  • Get clean. Mosquitoes that hatch in the neighbor's yard are just as likely to bite you as they are to bite him. I recommend a neighborhood cleanup project around the beginning of spring to get rid of standing water and mosquito breeding grounds.

A Word From Verywell

In most cases, mosquito bites are just annoying. Unless you develop the outlined symptoms or an infected bite, simple home remedies and a bit of patience will go a long way.

Source:

Avoid Mosquito Bites. (2016). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Chiu TM, Lin YM, Wang SC, Tsai YG. Hypersensitivity to mosquito bites as the primary clinical manifestation of an Epstein-Barr virus infection. J Microbiol Immunol Infect. 2016 Aug;49(4):613-6. doi: 10.1016/j.jmii.2014.01.008. Epub 2014 Mar 21.

Singh, S., & Mann, B. (2013). Insect bite reactions. Indian Journal Of Dermatology, Venereology, And Leprology79(2), 151. doi:10.4103/0378-6323.107629

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