How to Treat Bug Bites
With mosquitoes and summer flies out in full force, you’ll want to know how to relieve itching fast if you get bitten
Summer brings sunshine, barbecues, vacations — and bug bites. Mosquitoes and flies see humans as a huge group of involuntary blood donators. While many summer insects carry serious diseases — West Nile virus, “rabbit fever,” even plague — you’re more likely to feel sore or itchy after a run-in with a biting bug than to get sick. Oh, except perhaps for a localized infection (because you couldn’t help scratching).
Here’s how to ease the pain, stop the itch and prevent a basic bug bite from becoming an infected mess.
Know your enemy
Female mosquitoes and black flies are the main biting nemeses. A female mosquito will insert her proboscis (a needle-like sucking mouthpart) into your skin in search of a vein to draw blood from. (The blood helps her make eggs.) In the process, she'll inject you with saliva, which contains an anticoagulant to encourage your blood to flow.
The saliva isn’t a poison. “There’s no venom in a mosquito bite,” explains Florida-based dermatologist James Spencer, MD. “What you experience is an allergic reaction to a protein in the saliva, which is why a bite can look like a hive or a welt.”
Mosquitoes are attracted to heat, light, sweat, body odor, lactic acid and carbon dioxide — in other words, us in the summer. But not all human mosquito bait is created equal. A study of twins in the online journal “PLOS ONE” found that genes may affect how a person smells to a mosquito. Some folks are more appetizing than others.
Female black flies — you’ve met them at the beach — are blood-sucking vampires as well. They like to buzz around your eyes, ears and nostrils before inserting their piercing parts into your skin. Like mosquitoes, they can cause an “allergic” irritation.
Summer flies come in many forms, including horse flies, deer flies, no-see-ums, midges and stable or dog flies. (Both male and female stable flies feed on blood and are likely to seek out more than one host, upping the risk of passing on disease.)
Deer fly bites have been linked to tularemia, a rare infectious disease sometimes called “rabbit fever.” It can affect the eyes, skin and internal organisms and can be fatal. Though most other biting flies are not known to cause disease in humans, they can bring on an allergic reaction in some people — what’s known “black fly fever.” Symptoms include swollen lymph nodes, nausea, headache and fever.
Related: Natural Ways to Bug Proof Your Home
Ever notice how after you scratch a bug bite it actually itches more? That's because scratching irritates the area, signaling the immune system to keep pumping out histamines — the chemicals that bring on itching, redness, inflammation and other reactions.
Besides being ineffective, scratching a lot can lead to infection by making it easier for bacteria to get under the skin. This means that the absolute best thing you can do once bitten is control the itch without using your fingernails.
Home remedies for itching
For any kind of bite, you can soothe itching with over-the-counter topical or oral antihistamines, calamine lotion, witch hazel or one-percent hydrocortisone cream. Or you can try any of a number of natural tactics.
- Hydrogen peroxide. “It seems to neutralize the protein in the mosquito’s saliva that causes the reaction,” says Connecticut-based emergency room physician David John, MD. Just dab a little on the bite with a cotton ball. “You won’t itch and the bite won’t swell,” says John.
- Ice. Wrap a few cubes in a clean towel or washcloth and hold it against the bite. Do this for 10 minutes on and 10 minutes off to reduce swelling as well as relieve itching. A bag of frozen peas or corn will do the trick too.
- Cold brewed tea bag. Some studies have found that flavonoids in tea have an anti-inflammatory effect. Apply a dampened or brewed tea bag to bites. And go green: Because green tea is higher in flavonoids, it may bring more relief.
- Aloe vera. Break open a stem of this succulent plant and apply a bit of the gel-like substance inside to bites. Aloe vera has been found effective for all sorts of skin woes, including inflammation.
- Baking soda. Mix a spoonful with enough water to make a paste and dab onto bites.
- Oatmeal. Take a bath in colloidal oatmeal. Colloidal oatmeal — oatmeal that has been ground up and boiled — is found in all sorts of skin-care products, including powders to add to baths. Run a cool bath; hot water can irritate skin even further. You can also hold an oatmeal-soaked compress against a bite for 15 minutes, say experts at the University of Michigan.
- Bandage. Covering a bite with a bandage won't make it itch less, but it will protect skin from forgetful fingers.
Be alert for serious reactions
If a bite becomes inflamed or hurts, ibuprofen can help. Antibiotic ointment can stave off or treat minor infection. But if a bite site becomes increasingly red, swollen or painful, call your doctor. You probably have an infection, which may require antibiotics. Call your doctor if you develop any other troubling symptoms following a mosquito or fly bite.
If you’re hypersensitive to bug bites, you can develop blisters, hives, even fever and joint swelling. The worst that can happen is anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening condition characterized by throat swelling, trouble breathing and weakness. “An anaphylactic reaction is a 911 call,” says Dr. John. “Even though it means a lot of lights and sirens, the medics can treat you right away. Every minute counts.”