Prevention is key when it comes to dealing with mosquitoes. Still, despite our best efforts, the occasional bite is inevitable—particularly in Hong Kong, where the “little gnats” take up residence year-round.
Here’s what you need to know about mosquito bites and what you can do once you’ve been bitten.
Why Are Bites Itchy?
Female mosquitoes drink human blood as a protein source for their egg development.
They don’t technically “bite” us—they use their antennae to locate a capillary near the skin’s surface and then insert the tip of their proboscis (a long, pointed mouthpart). One tube injects saliva, in part to prevent clotting and ease flow, while another draws blood.
The telltale bump, or “wheal,” is our immune system responding to enzymes in the mosquito’s saliva. Histamines released from blood cells move to the site of the bite, helping to bring more white blood cells to fight the invading substance. Too much histamine and the swelling and itchiness kick in.
World Mosquito Day originated in 1897.
Observed annually on August 20, the occasion marks British doctor Sir Ronald Ross` demonstrated link between mosquitoes and malaria, and raises awareness of the threat of diseases transmitted by mosquitoes.
How to Stop the Itch?
For mild reactions, cooling the affected skin and blood vessels can ease swelling and itchiness, so make sure to have ice, an ice pack or cold compress ready.
Similar results can be found with topical solutions with a cooling sensation, such as rubbing alcohol and bite-relief products with menthol. Calamine lotion, with its zinc and iron oxides, also soothes itchy skin and is suitable for use by pregnant women and infants
Topical creams, ointments and lotions that contain mild steroids such as hydrocortisone also work to reduce both swelling and itching. Home remedies worth trying include vinegar, aloe vera, raw honey, natural peppermint or neem toothpaste, and a paste of baking soda and water. Diluted essential oils such as tea tree, rosemary and lavender can also provide relief.
If you can’t bear the itch or experience a more severe reaction, antihistamines are a widely accepted treatment to calm your body’s immune responses while ibuprofen can block the release of prostaglandins that cause pain and swelling.
While most antihistamines are considered safe during pregnancy, you may want to consult your doctor about taking ibuprofen in the later stages.
It should be noted, however, that a 2012 study published in the Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin didn’t actually find strong evidence to support the efficacy of over-the-counter treatments. Nonetheless, it said that treatments help “sometimes” and recommended cold compresses, mild corticosteroid creams and oral antihistamines.
Did You Know?
Researchers from Virginia Tech published a study in early 2018 showing that mosquitoes can learn and remember human smells, and also who swats at them! They discovered that even delicious-smelling hosts may be abandoned by a mosquito if that person's smell is associated with unpleasant sensation s like swatting
What Not to Do
If you can, resist the urge to scratch as it stirs up mosquito saliva that may increase your body’s histamine response and can break the skin, leaving you vulnerable to infection. If you must, tap or slap the bite to temporarily pause the itch.
When to see a Doctor
While most mosquito bites cause mild reactions and resolve themselves within 24 hours or so, more serious reactions can include welts, hives and fever, and warrant a visit to the doctor.
There are more than 3,000 species of mosquitoes worldwide, with some of the most dangerous known to carry malaria, West Nile virus, dengue fever and the increasingly common Zika virus.
Some people even suffer the life-threatening allergic reaction, anaphylaxis, from mosquito bites. You can identify this by symptoms such as a rash, shortness of breath, low blood pressure and the sensation of the throat closing up.
Everyone reacts differently to mosquito bites and there are no guaranteed after-bite solutions. Find out which methods work best for you and remember to stay protected in the first place!