Mosquito Season: Why OTC Remedies May Not Ease the Itch

ALTudor Editor

    “Spring has sprung,” as the old saying goes, bringing with it warmer air and splashes of color in gardens and trees. You can even see signs of Spring in your local drugstores, with seasonal aisles offering huge selection of remedies for both allergies and insect bites. 


    There’s Just One Problem: These Remedies May Not Work


    According to a new study published in the British journal Drug and Therapeutic Bulletin, there is little evidence that insect bite remedies work to relieve the pain and other symptoms of stings and bites.


    To understand the study, let’s first look at what happens to the skin when a person is bitten or stung by an insect by looking at how the body responds to one common insects’ bite:  the mosquito.

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    Inside the Common Mosquito Bite:


    When a mosquito bites, a tiny bit of saliva is injected under the skin. This acts as an anticoagulant, keeping the animal or human’s blood thin at the bite site. This makes it easier for the mosquito to feed on the blood.  Once the mosquito has had its fill, it will fly away, leaving the saliva behind. 


    The saliva triggers an immune response in the body, causing substances known as histamines to be released from cells to attack the saliva in an effort to break it down.  The histamine reaction leads to swelling around the bite (called a wheal) and itching at the bite site.  The itching will continue until the proteins in the mosquito’s saliva are broken down.


    Though most people are simply left with this annoying itch and swelling, a very few people can have severe reactions to these bites ranging from infections to eczema flare-ups to anaphylactic shock. And if you’ve noticed larger wheals on children after they’ve been bitten, there’s a reason: children react more strongly to mosquito bites than adults, since the body develops a partial immunity to the saliva’s enzymes as we age.


    People use a number of remedies in an effort to treat the pain and itching of insect bites, including topical treatments that contain painkillers, antihistamines, corticosteroids, anesthetics, or antiseptics. Painkillers, anesthetics, and corticosteroids are designed to relieve pain and inflammation from the bites. Antihistamines attempt to ease swelling and itching, and antiseptics are meant to fight or prevent infections in the bites.


    But What About the Itch?


    Given the wide variety of topical treatments available to treat insect bites and stings, investigators were interested in seeing which – if any – of these treatments helped to ease the signs and symptoms of insect bites (excluding bites by ticks, lice, and mites). 


    After reviewing the available data on the effectiveness of these topical agents, the researchers concluded that these treatments were "only marginally effective and occasionally cause sensitization.”  This means that the treatments appear not only to be ineffective at relieving the bug bites’ symptoms, but they can also work to make these symptoms worse!  The only treatment that was found to be marginally effective to relieve burning and itching was a diluted ammonium solution, or a mixture of ammonia and water.


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    In the end, the researchers concluded that unless people have severe reactions to insect bites and stings – a situation that is fairly uncommon – most people should just leave the bites untreated.  As the study’s authors said:  “The symptoms [of insect bites and stings] are often self-limiting and, in many cases, no treatment may be needed."



    Sources:  Drug and Therapeutic Bulletin; CBS Minnesota; HealthDay News;;

Published On: April 24, 2012