Mosquitos- those pesky little buggers they ruin your Saturday cookout and then leave you with incessant night time itching. For some it may sound like your college girlfriend…joking. These fly looking things are what nightmares are made of, sometimes small enough to be invisible to the human eye. We have all been there, feverishly rubbing on toothpaste, peppermint, vicks vapor rub, alcohol—slathering ourselves with whatever promised relief. I’m sure you’ve also tried burning those toxic candles, that fan belt clip thingy, the bracelets, the noisemakers, and the old fashion fly tape to try and prevent the blood sucking from ever happening. Then there is the hocus pocus about eating certain things to change the “taste” of your blood, like garlic. People swear by this garlic trick. Well, apparently all the mosquitos I’ve encountered have been right off the boat Italian, they love me like mama’s garlic bread at Sunday dinner. I can almost hear the theme song of The Godfather buzzing off their wings as they swoop in for a nibble. My wife is even worse. I used to tell her that bugs loved her so much because she was full of sh!t. This is another joke, of course, but does bring up a good point…why do folks seem to attract mosquitos while others repel? A study in 2004 concluded that blood type may be the reason for the mosquitos’ affinity. They found that type O blood attracted nearly twice as many mosquitos as type A or type B (J Med Entomol. 2004 Jul;41(4):796-9). I can tell you from talking to my patients and from personal experience (I’m type O) that this is not nearly the entire picture. To further debunk this, my wife is type AB and she gets attacked worse than I do. For fun, you can have your blood type tested at your doctor’s office for less than $30 and see whether or not it rings true for you. So, why do mosquitos like some more than others?
In my poorly designed, mini experiment, I can tell you blood type is not the ticket or at least it is not the whole truth. There has to be something else. There are also some theories that certain colors attract mosquitos and even how much CO2 you exhale. The one piece of evidence out there that holds the most water is the concept that, much like our guts, the bacteria on us will dictate how tasty we are. An article published in 2011 concluded that certain bacterial diversity on your skin is what will attract mosquitos. Different genetics, skin type, diet and environmental factor all affect this. You can read the entire article here.
Serious Sickness. Ok, ok…we all know what mosquitos are and what they do so I want to bring up a more serious point being that we are in the thick of summer and many places around country are feeling their wrath. I know a lot of folks are also traveling out of the country and this could be where we get most concerned (more on this in a bit). Worse than the annoyance and itchy lumps, these insects are hold strong potential for health consequences from what their bite may transmit. A mosquito is considered a “vector”. Think of a vector as a carrier of infectious pathogens and in this case, pretty nasty ones. Another vector you may have heard about is the tick or the flea. Many vectors feed on blood thus during feeding the vector will pass on any microbe or virus it is currently hosting. Mosquitoes are known all over the globe to carry some pretty nasty bugs and viruses, some are even life-threatening. Here are a few:
- Yellow Fever
- West Nile Virus
- St. Louis Encephalitis
- Eastern Equine Encephalitis
As time passes we continue to discover more and more infectious agents that are transmitted by mosquitos. According to the CDC, in the past 15 years, 9 new bacteria have been identified to be spread by mosquitos. This list will likely grow, so finding ways to prevent the bite is essential.
When should you worry?
Some of these infections sound pretty scary and for good reason. Diseases such as Chikunguynya can lead to debilitating pain and fatigue. Dengue fever can lead to severe hemorrhage and death. Now before you go wrapping yourself in tin foil and roll around in citronella most mosquito bites are a non-issue. Some folks will have a stronger non-infectious reaction due to the chemicals that a mosquito uses to feed on your blood! Sounds like a horror movie, I know. Mosquitos will feed for about 4 minutes if left undisturbed. They must inject an anti-coagulant to keep the blood from clotting during this time so they can get a full meal. Be on the look out for swelling that doesn’t subside in 24-48 hours. If the bite site gets hot and red or starts to spread, that is the time to put a call into your local doctor just to have things checked out. Likely this is inflammation via your immune system breaking down some of the proteins left behind by the mosquito but it doesn’t hurt to know for sure.
If you want to see some pretty wild videos of a mosquito bite, check out Natural Geographic’s website or this video here.
The first signs that something more significant is usually unusual spreading of the bite site, fever, and/or fatigue. Any of these signs and you should make an appointment with your medical provider. More severe reactions such as vomiting, light sensitivity, delirium, and muscle weakness is more of an emergent situation and you should seek medical care ASAP. Unfortunately, not all infections toss you a softball of symptoms that allow you to react in a timely manner. Some can lurk around your body asymptomatic for some time. West Nile Virus, for instance, may be completely asymptomatic in some but could cause issues later on such as high blood pressure or kidney disease. See the research.
Your suspicion should be peaked if you’ve traveled to areas of the globe where some of these more significant infections are prevalent: South America, Africa, Australia, and parts of Asia. This isn’t a perfect equation either and with today’s affordable travel many people vacation out of country and those have the ability to spread state side from person to person by other mosquitos. Not all, but some diseases work this way. Travel is still a concern so make sure you inform your doctor of recent destinations.
Repelling is the name of the game.
Those who spend a lot of time outside are at greatest risk, but it only takes one “bite” to receive enough of the infectious agent to get you sick. Repelling these little blood junkies is your best bet but if that fails and you believe that you have fallen ill due to mosquito bite it is important you get to your doctor for proper testing. There are some simple, yet specific blood tests to look for these different diseases and syndromes. Often time, an astute doctor can recognize a group of symptoms and begin treatment immediately to help you feel better while waiting on the data from the blood.
As stated previously, preventing the initial attack is ideal. DEET is the most common insect repellent and has been around since the 1940s. Its abilities are mysterious, and the exact mechanism is unknown. Like many top selling products (ehem pharmaceuticals) its negative effects on the body are equally as mysterious. DEET is not something I recommend unless there is absolutely no other alternative and you’re traveling to a place that you know is high risk. At the very least, I would suggest using as little DEET as possible and combining with some options below.
If DEET is not something you are interested in, here are some of the essential oils for repelling mosquitos:
- Lemon eucalyptus
The nice part is, you can mix these all together to come up with a potent repellent cocktail. Other than smelling like an old library and work boots, this should keep them away and other insects like ticks, lice, and fleas.
The combination that works best for me are equal parts of the following:
- Lemon Eucalyptus
- 1- 2 drops of peppermint and lavender for its pleasant smell
As stated above, what works for me and my body chemistry may not work well for you, so play around with a few different mixtures.
These oils will also ward off other biting insects as well and are non-toxic. The only down side is you do need to keep them on hand as they should be re-applied regularly as they lose potency fairly quickly. We usually re-apply at least 1x per hour- but that is OK as these oils are relatively inexpensive and have extremely long shelf-life so buying them in bulk is not a bad idea.
Next time you feel like a piece of meat being tenderized, remember some of these tips:
- Pay attention to the bite site- if it starts to enlarge, become hot and swollen then this could be an immune reaction to the bite or signs of something a bit more serious. Most mosquito bites should reduce in size and symptoms within 24-48hrs.
- If you begin to feel systemic symptoms, then it may be time for a trip to your doctor.
- Repelling is the name of the game- there are some pretty strong combinations of oils that are not only safe but extremely effective. These can be sprayed directly on the skin or diffused in your outdoor environment.
I’m proud to announce that I am 3 seasons deep on being mosquito bite free! I hope you find this article helpful. Feel free to share it with others who may benefit.