Chances are, you've already had a handful of mosquito bites, and you'll have even more by the time warm weather draws to a close. But while bug bites might be a summer rite of passage, you can do without the swelling, pain and itch, thank you very much.
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If you've ever been up all night scratching and slapping at a particularly bad nip, you may have wondered what you could do to find relief.
Why Do Mosquito Bites Itch, Anyway?
When a mosquito bites you, some of its saliva enters your skin as it feasts on your blood. Your body actually has an immune reaction to some of the proteins in the saliva, similar to as if you had an allergic reaction, explains Kevin McGrath, MD, an allergist in Wethersfield, Connecticut and spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. As a result, over the next several hours, you’ll notice a gradual onset of swelling, itching and redness.
Most of the time, this is nothing more than an annoyance. But some people have a more intense reaction that includes a large area of swelling and redness, as well as other symptoms like a mild fever, hives and swollen lymph nodes (this phenomenon is often known as Skeeter Syndrome). This type of response usually improves over time, but it may take longer — up to 10 days, notes Dr. McGrath.
1. Over-the-Counter Antihistamines
"This is by far the most effective way to treat itching, since these drugs prevent your body from releasing histamine, a chemical that your body releases as part of its inflammatory response to a mosquito bite," says Dr. McGrath.
You can start taking them as soon as you notice itching and swelling. The drug of choice is diphenhydramine (Benadryl), because it's very fast-acting, Dr. McGrath notes. But because it can also be sedating, you may want to save it for nighttime, or use one of the newer, second-generation antihistamines like fexofenadine (Allegra), cetirizine (Zyrtec) or loratadine (Claritin).
- Benadryl Ultratabs (ages 6 and older); $4.44 at Walmart
- Benadryl Extra-Strength Itch-Stopping Cream (ages 2 and older); $4.28 at Walmart
- Allegra 24-Hour Tablets for Adults; $12.94 at Walmart
- Zyrtec 24-Hour Allergy Relief Tablets for Adults; $17.94 at Walmart
- Claritin 24-Hour Tablets for Adults; $19.80 at Walmart
"The cold helps with the inflammation from the bite, and the ice helps numb the skin area where the mosquito has bitten and you have the itch," explains Debra Jaliman, MD, an assistant professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and author of the book, Skin Rules: Trade Secrets from a Top New York Dermatologist.
Because direct ice on the skin for a long period of time is not recommended, she suggests you apply an ice pack for 10 minutes to reduce swelling and itching, then give your skin a break for a few minutes and reapply as needed.
3. Calamine Lotion
"This is always a good first line of defense, when combined with ice and antihistamines, for mosquito bites," says Dr. McGrath. "It works by causing a cooling sensation as it evaporates on your skin."
Apply a dab over your bite, and reapply it when the itch returns — usually after a couple of hours.
Buy it: Caladryl Calamine Lotion (2-pack); Price: $17.72 at Walmart
4. Baking Soda
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends you apply a mixture of baking soda and water to help reduce the itch.
Mix a tablespoon of baking soda with just enough water to create a paste, then apply it to the bite. Wait 10 minutes, then wash off the paste.
5. Over-the-Counter Cortisone Cream
These can help tamp down the inflammation associated with the bite, says Dr. McGrath. Apply it twice a day for five to 10 days, or as long as symptoms last.
If your bite is really big and itchy, and you're really miserable, you can always call your doctor and ask them for a prescription-strength cream, which is stronger.
Buy it: Cortizone-10 Maximum Strength Anti-Itch Cream; Price: $6.49 at CVS
"It may help soothe the area, and because it has antibacterial properties, it may actually prevent the bite from becoming infected," says Dr. Jaliman. "It won't do as much for the itch, though, as other home remedies."
You can put a dab of the sweet stuff on the bite several times a day. Just don't do it right before you go outside, as the honey itself can attract more bugs.
7. Cool Tea Bag
A tea bag soaked in cold water has similar properties to ice: It helps reduce inflammation and numb the skin area, says Dr. Jaliman.
But the tea bag itself also contains substances called tannins, which have anti-inflammatory properties, she notes. Use black tea, which is highest in tannins.
Like an ice pack, apply it to the bite for 10 minutes, and then reapply as needed.
This simple home remedy also relieves inflammation and itching, says Dr. Jaliman.
While there has been no research that looks at oatmeal and bug bites directly, a 2015 study in the Journal of Drug Dermatology found that an oatmeal-based lotion helped relieve dryness-related itching on women's legs after about two weeks.
You can throw some ground oatmeal into a bath, or buy a pre-made version at the drugstore, such as Aveeno Soothing Bath Treatment ($6.62 from Amazon).
9. Aloe Vera Gel
It's known as a sunburn soother, but aloe can also help with inflammation, redness and cooling the area, says Dr. Jaliman, which will make the itch much more bearable.
Pro tip: Store your aloe vera gel in the fridge instead of your medicine cabinet, as the cold itself will also help with itchiness, Dr. Jaliman notes.
You can buy the gel at just about any drugstore and apply it several times a day.
Buy it: Fruit of the Earth Aloe Vera Gel; Price: $5.99 at Walgreens
What About Those Bug Bite Suction Devices?
These devices — like the Bug Bite Thing, which claims to suck out all the venom from bug bites — are all the rage on Amazon, but there's no good scientific evidence that they work.
While some users swear by them, the reason they may seem to temporarily relieve itching is because the suction increases blood flow to the area, which helps tamp down inflammation, points out Dr. McGrath.
They can't hurt, but they may not be worth the $10 you have to spend on one, either.
What About Slapping Yourself?
You may have heard that slapping a mosquito bite can stop it from itching, and there's some truth to it: "Slapping the itchy area will disrupt the nerves that are sending the signals to the brain that allow you to feel the itch," explains Dr. Jaliman.
The problem, she notes, is that it only lasts for a few seconds, so it will only work if you're willing to whack yourself repeatedly. It's probably easier to just slap on some calamine lotion and call it a day.
When to See A Doctor
Most mosquito bites can be safely treated at home, but there are some times when you need to get medical attention, says Dr. McGrath. The two main ones are:
1. You're having a severe allergic reaction. If you notice swelling beyond the bug bite, such as your face, eyes, lips, tongue or throat, or notice that you're having trouble breathing or swallowing, call 911, says Dr. McGrath, as this could signal a very serious allergic response.
2. The bite becomes infected. This can happen if you scratch it, which is why it's so important to find ways to stop the itch, notes Dr. McGrath. Signs include fever, sudden redness or warmth and a red streak that spreads out from the bite.
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.