It’s a sound many of us dread. It often strikes in the middle of hot summer nights, and once it’s gone, you’re usually left scratching a series of seriously itchy bumps all over your body. The high-pitched buzz of a hungry mosquito is annoying and the aftermath can be painful, and in rare cases, even life-threatening.
Why do mosquitoes bite?
Female mosquitoes require protein to lay their eggs, and they get the nutrition they need from warm-blooded creatures, including humans. Male mosquitoes, on the other hand, feed on flower nectar. Because the females are equal-opportunity biters, they can and do feed on other warm-blooded creatures before they get to you. This means if they bite an infected animal or person before biting you, they can pass along the disease to you through their saliva.
What attracts mosquitoes?
No one knows exactly why mosquitoes prefer certain individuals over others, but research indicates that genetics could play a significant role in a person’s susceptibility to bites.
Certain characteristics, including high concentrations of steroids or cholesterol on the skin’s surface, can increase your likelihood of being bit. But this doesn’t mean that people with high cholesterol are necessarily more prone to attacks; it’s those who more efficiently express cholesterol so that the byproduct remains on the skin’s surface who are likely mosquito targets.
Additionally, people with excess amounts of uric acid, a chemical created when your body breaks down certain foods, and people who emit large quantities of carbon dioxide (larger people and pregnant women tend to give off more) are more likely to entice mosquitoes.
Movement and heat also attract mosquitoes, thanks to the carbon dioxide produced from heavy breathing and the lactic acid from sweat glands. So if you’re planning to spend your summer staying active outdoors, know how to protect yourself.
What are the symptoms of mosquito-bite illnesses?
Itchy bites that are accompanied by flu-like symptoms may indicate a mosquito-bite illness. Most mild cases go away with rest and time, and the symptoms include:
- Body aches
There are a variety of illnesses that can result from mosquito bites, including:
- West Nile virus (WNV): WNV has affected individuals in 48 of 50 US states, Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and West and Central Asia. Most people who are infected don’t experience symptoms, but one in five develop a fever and other flu-like symptoms. There is a small chance of individuals with WNV developing more serious infections and there is a very small chance of death.
- Encephalitis: The type of infection and accompanying symptoms vary depending upon the geographic location where the infection occurred (La Crosse encephalitis, for example, occurs most often in the upper midwestern states). The illness can cause inflammation around the brain and spinal cord. There is medication to ease the fever and sore throat, and emergency care is necessary for severe symptoms like confusion, seizures, and muscle weakness. Early detection and treatment is essential.
- Chikungunya virus: This illness was once mostly seen in the Caribbean and South America, but is now spreading in the US. It causes severe joint pain, but rest and fluids usually alleviate the symptoms, which can last for several weeks.
- Dengue fever (aka breakbone fever): People in the US who have dengue fever generally contract it while traveling in warm parts of Africa, Asia, Pacific Islands, Central and South America, and the Caribbean, especially Puerto Rico. It occurs in tropical and subtropical areas and there are fewer than 20,000 cases in the US annually. It usually starts with a sudden high fever and bleeding from the nose or gums. The best remedy is to rest and seek medical care to treat the symptoms.
- Yellow fever: It’s unlikely for yellow fever to hit the US because most tropical countries require travelers to get vaccinated. Rest, fluids, and medication can help, but weakness can last for several months.
- Malaria: There have been no malaria parasite illnesses in the US since the 1950s, but small outbreaks have happened when travelers come back from other areas. There are prophylactic medications prescribed to travelers in order to prevent infections.
Traveling to any of the areas listed above? Call your local One Medical Group office to ask about our travel clinic services.
How can I prevent mosquito bites?
An itchy summer isn’t inevitable. There are plenty of ways to stave off mosquito bites, and what you wear, drink, and put on your skin can have a big impact on your susceptibility. Here are some tips to prevent mosquito bites:
- Cover your skin or wear light-colored or bright clothing (dark colors attract bugs because they resemble dark fur of warm-blooded animals).
- Stay indoors during dusk and dawn.
- Use mosquito repellent when you’re outdoors. Most chemical repellents contain DEET or picaridin, which are both considered safe when used as directed, although there may be risks from use, including skin irritation.
- If you want to avoid chemical repellents, there are natural alternatives:
- Soybean oil-based repellent is the most effective, protecting for up to 1.5 hours.
- Lemon eucalyptus oil is endorsed by the CDC and available under the brand name Repel; it’s been shown to provide similar protection to products containing low concentrations of DEET.
- IR3535 (or 3-[N-Butyl-N- acetyl]-aminopropionic acid, ethyl ester) has been used in Europe for over 20 years and has been registered in the US since 1999. It can be irritating to the skin and eyes, but poses very few safety risks.
- Citronella, cedar, peppermint, lemongrass, geranium, and tea tree oils, as well as skin patches containing thiamine (vitamin B1) are also commonly used to ward off mosquitoes, although there is not enough evidence to confirm their effectiveness.
- Don’t allow water to collect around the house or keep pools of water anywhere.
- Use screens on the windows or a mosquito net when camping.
- Avoid floral perfumes.
- Skip the beer–mosquitoes have been shown to prefer beer drinkers.
The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.
Any general advice posted on our blog, website, or app is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace or substitute for any medical or other advice. The One Medical Group entities and 1Life Healthcare, Inc. make no representations or warranties and expressly disclaim any and all liability concerning any treatment, action by, or effect on any person following the general information offered or provided within or through the blog, website, or app. If you have specific concerns or a situation arises in which you require medical advice, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified medical services provider.