This time of year, everyone wants to know how to make mosquito bites stop itching. With plenty of backyard barbecues, family picnics, and lakeside hangouts ahead, it’s only a matter of time before relentlessly itchy red spots start to pop up (if they haven’t already).
If the overwhelming urge to scratch at a cluster of mosquito bites is disrupting your summer plans, there are a slew of different treatments and home remedies you could try to help relieve your itch. Some are backed by science, others not so much.
Here, learn why the itch from mosquito bites itch so much, which treatments actually work, and how to keep bloodsuckers away all summer long, with expert insight from doctors.
Why do mosquito bites itch?
When a mosquito latches on to suck your blood, it leaves behind a little saliva that contains proteins your body registers as unwanted intruders. Reactions to mosquito bites are caused by your immune system’s response to these proteins, Kelly Maples, MD, chair of the Dermatology Committee for the American College of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology, tells Health.
In order to protect you, your body releases compounds known as histamines. As they mount their defense, they also trigger itchiness, inflammation, and swelling.
“It’s normal to have a mild reaction to mosquito bites with redness about twenty minutes after the bite, followed by an itchy, firm bump that forms over the next day or two,” says Dr. Maples. Mosquito bites can be particularly itchy for children, people who haven’t been bitten by a certain species of mosquito before, or those living with immune system disorders, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC).
However, severe allergic reactions (aka anaphylaxis or “skeeter syndrome“) to mosquito bites are very rare, says Dr. Maples. According to MedlinePlus, a resource from the US National Library of Medicine, signs that indicate you should seek emergency medical care immediately include:
- Swelling and redness beyond the bite site
- Trouble breathing
Otherwise, one reason why mosquito bites can be especially itchy is how we respond to them. As annoying as they can be, it’s best to avoid rubbing or scratching at them, which only makes the itch worse, Payel Gupta, MD, a board-certified allergist and immunologist and co-founder of Cleared, a teleallergy platform, tells Health.
While it might feel good at first, scratching at bites damages your skin which triggers the release of more histamines-and the itchiness that comes with them. You could also increase your risk of infection by opening yourself up to bacteria in your environment and underneath your nails, says Dr. Gupta.
So, how can you finally break the itch-scratch cycle and let those bites heal? Start with mosquito bite treatments you can count on.
What are some doctor-approved mosquito bite treatments?
“Cool compresses, over-the-counter oral antihistamines, and topical corticosteroids like hydrocortisone cream can help ease reactions to mosquito bites by blocking histamine and other mediators of allergic reactions,” says Dr. Maples. Additionally, a few home remedies might be helpful, too.
Within a few days, you should feel better. But if you give these a try and your mosquito bites look worse or just won’t stop itching, see a healthcare provider for additional treatment, per the American Academy of Dermatology.
1. Ice the itch away
“Cold exposure can help numb the area and calm down any inflammation so you don’t feel the irritation from bites as much,” says Dr. Gupta. Use an ice pack, washcloth soaked in ice water, or even a cool bath to relieve your itch, per the University of Michigan Health Library.
2. Lather on anti-itch creams
Another option is to apply an over-the-counter calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream according to the label instructions. Look for ointments that contain lidocaine or benzocaine for an additional numbing effect, says Anna Guanche, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Bella Skin Institute in Calabasas, CA.
But talk to your doctor before using hydrocortisone products on young children as they could cause unwanted effects, per the Mayo Clinic.
3. Take antihistamines
For speedy relief from lots of must-scratch bites, try a non-drowsy, over-the-counter antihistamine like Zyrtec (cetirizine), Allegra (fexofenadine), or Claritin (loratadine). “Antihistamines block histamine receptors to reduce the intensity of the itching and the welting and swelling associated with bites,” explains Dr. Guanche.
4. Apply rubbing alcohol
Dab some rubbing alcohol on bites if you’re looking for quick, temporary relief, suggests Dr. Guanche. Because it rapidly evaporates, rubbing alcohol could have a short-term cooling effect which may help relieve itchiness. Too much alcohol can be irritating or burn, though, so only use a little.
5. Try lemon balm cream
For a time-honored herbal remedy, try applying a cream that contains lemon balm essential oils to bites. “Compounds in lemon balm essential oils can help ease inflammation, speed up healing, and reduce the risk of infection,” says Dr. Guanche.
Talk to a healthcare provider to make sure it’s safe and determine the proper dosage if you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, or treating a child, per the Mount Sinai Health Library.
Which mosquito bite treatments should you skip?
While some home remedies for mosquito bites such as honey, oatmeal, and aloe vera could help dial down inflamed skin, they’re not nearly as effective in the anti-itch department compared to other mosquito bite treatments, Susan Bard, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City, tells Health. As such, she wouldn’t recommend them.
Others like garlic and baking soda could also cause effects you definitely don’t want like skin irritation, dryness, and burns, notes Dr. Bard.
Despite old wives’ tales or other beneficial properties, the doctors we spoke with say these remedies aren’t worth your time when it comes to easing itchy mosquito bites:
- Oatmeal baths
- Aloe vera
- Baking soda
- Lemon or lime juice
How can you prevent mosquito bites?
Usually, it only takes one bad cluster of mosquito bites to remind you that prevention is the best medicine.
In this spirit, here are a few ways to reduce your risk of being bitten by mosquitoes, per the CDC:
- Spray away. Use an insect repellent approved by the Environmental Protection Agency such as DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE), para-menthane-diol (PMD), or 2-undecanone. For children, avoid OLE or PMD products, opt for DEET 30% or lower, and avoid using repellent on infants below the age of 2 months.
- Cover up. Wear long sleeves and pants or treat your threads with permethrin spray specially-formulated for clothing, which irritates biters on contact.
- Pour out standing water. Regularly turn over water-collectors (hot spots for mosquito eggs) in your yard such as bird baths, buckets, trash cans, and flowerpots.
- Hang mosquito nets. Surround outdoor hangout areas, strollers, and baby carriers with mosquito netting to keep bugs out, and patch up holes in screens on doors and windows.
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