It’s not that they don’t warn you: mosquitoes approach buzzing before they bite. Still, they have a high hit rate. Their itchy bites can torture us for days at a time. Dr. Gerhard Dobler, specialist in microbiology, virology and infection epidemiology, explains how you can prevent mosquito bites and what helps against mosquito bites.
Why do mosquitoes bite?
Mosquitoes do not bite because they are aggressive, but in order to preserve their species: “Mosquitoes, and only female mosquitoes, bite humans or vertebrates to suck blood. This blood is needed for the development of the eggs in the female’s body,” explains Dr. Dobler. In contrast, male mosquitoes feed exclusively on flower nectar.
Only female gnats bite. With the blood they feed their brood © Arctic Photoworks / Shutterstock.com
By the way, mosquitoes do not have a sting, but a sucking trunk. Its jagged surface slices our skin with tiny cuts. Immediately after the incision, the mosquito injects its saliva into the incision, which among other things triggers an anaesthetic, so that we often only notice after a delay that we have been bitten.
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Why do mosquito bites itch?
“The saliva of mosquitoes contains substances that inhibit blood coagulation so that the blood remains fluid and does not stick to the fine biting apparatus of the mosquitoes”, says Dr. Dobler. “These substances trigger an allergic reaction with histamine release, especially in the case of repeated contact, which then leads to redness and itching”. In some people, the redness can be followed by a late allergic reaction, so that the itching can last for several days. Dr.
Dobler: “Mechanical irritations also release further histamine and lead to prolonged itching and a spread of local complaints”. So, very important, don’t scratch, no matter how nasty the itch!
Can mosquito bites be dangerous to health?
Mosquito bites are harmless at first, even though they are of course very unpleasant and annoying. Dr. Dobler: “However, allergic reactions can occur due to the ingredients contained in the mosquito saliva, which are usually locally limited, but then cause a more severe locally itchy and reddened reaction in the skin”.
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“In certain regions of the world, mosquitoes carry many pathogens, including malaria, yellow fever, dengue fever and Zika fever,” says Dr. Dobler. “These are transmitted by mosquito bites and can lead to serious and life-threatening disease patterns. In this country, however, mosquito bites usually do not seriously endanger health.
In our latitudes, mosquito bites are not a serious health hazard © Christin Lola / Shutterstock.com
What helps against itching after a mosquito bite?
“After a mosquito bite, the area should be cooled locally, for example with rubbing alcohol, a Cool Pack or with cold water,” says Dr. Dobler. “In case of more severe reactions or prolonged itching, the area can be treated with an antihistamine. Cooling gels containing antihistamines are available without prescription at the pharmacy. Those who are frequently pricked should have Soventol or Fenistil in stock in the refrigerator, for example.
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“Another treatment approach is the application of heat, which inactivates the allergenic substances of the mosquito saliva in the skin and possibly also the histamine,” says Dr. Dobler. Some people hold a hot spoon over the bitten area (caution, danger of burns!) or better have an electronic bite healer such as the heating pen bite away (available in drugstores). The ceramic contact surface of the handy pens is placed on the bite for a few seconds, heating the area to about 50 degrees Celsius.
Sometimes a repeated application is necessary. In general, the pens are considered the best protection against annoying itching after a mosquito bite.
Why does heat help against mosquito bites?
There are two theories why the local application of heat relieves itching after mosquito bites. Dr. Dobler: “One theory says that the heat inactivates the allergenic substances in the skin and thus quickly stops the histamine release. The second theory sees histamine as a target for the heat. Here the histamine is damaged by the heat in such a way that it loses its effectiveness in the skin and the allergic reaction comes to an end”.
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How to avoid a mosquito bite?
The fact that mosquitoes particularly like “sweet blood” belongs in the category of old wives’ tales. But what actually attracts mosquitoes are the smell of sweat, body temperature and particularly well supplied with blood.
“One should wear long, preferably closed clothing and treat the uncovered parts of the skin with a so-called repellent, a substance that repels mosquitoes,” advises Dr. Dobler. Repellents like Icaridine or Deet contain chemical compounds that have a deterrent effect on mosquitoes. Their mosquito repellent effect lasts for about 8 hours, but can – in very rare cases – also have side effects such as skin irritation and even affect the nervous system.
This is how you use repellents properly:
- Don’t wait until you hear the typical buzzing of mosquitoes, but spray yourself early and all over the place.
- In high humidity or if you sweat a lot, the mosquito repellent effect will not last as long. Frequent re-spraying is then necessary.
- Mosquitoes also bite through very thin fabrics. So if you are wearing just a touch of blouse, you should also spray yourself underneath with a repellent.
- If you need to combine sun and mosquito protection, apply the repellent last. In general, sun protection can slightly reduce the effect of the repellent.
- It is important not to apply the products to open skin areas or near mucous membranes to minimize the risk of side effects. Chemical repellents are not suitable for pregnant women and infants.
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What to do if the mosquito bite gets infected?
“If the site of the mosquito bite is inflamed, bacteria have entered the bite wound,” says Dr. Dobler, “Then a doctor should be consulted. Depending on the extent of the inflammation, treatment with antibiotics may then be necessary.”
Don’t let the outdoor season be spoiled by annoying mosquitoes. Equip yourself for outdoor activities and mild summer evenings with the right clothing and repellents, and have antihistamine gels or a heat stick at the ready. then a mosquito doesn’t become an elephant.