The Huffington Post Sarah Klein First Posted: 06/20/12 08:14 AM ET Updated: 06/20/12 01:32 PM ET
Mosquitoes can carry life-threatening diseases, but for many people, torturous itchiness feels like more of a threat.
While there are plenty of ways to try to prevent the bites in the first place, nothing is 100 percent foolproof, and most of us know all too well that skeeters have a way of finding -- and preying on -- even the tiniest bit of exposed skin.
That's why it's helpful to arm yourself with some handy ways to ease the itching. But first, says Dr. Neal B. Schultz, a board-certified dermatologist in practice in New York City, we need to understand why a bite itches to begin with.
"Itching is a low-grade form of pain," he tells The Huffington Post. "The mosquito is injecting a material into your skin that causes inflammation, which is redness, swelling, tenderness and heat. That then becomes an itch." The body's natural reaction to the bite is to release histamine, he says, a compound that signals an allergic reaction, which causes itching. (That's why medications called "anti-histamines" often do the trick.)
While it's endlessly tempting to scratch, there are a couple of problems with doing so. First, breaking the skin anymore (with your dirty fingers, nonetheless) exposes the bite to a greater risk of infection, says Schultz. Plus, scratching actually creates more inflammation, leading to more itching and worse pain. Essentially, scratching mosquito bites is "fueling the fire" he says.
Instead, many people turn to the afore-mentioned anti-histamines to reduce itching and other symptoms of their bug bites. However, many are known for causing pesky side effects, particularly drowsiness, although Schultz says new iterations are less likely to make you sleepy. Still others opt for calamine, which acts as an astringent, meaning it will draw fluid out of the swollen bite to reduce some of the discomfort, says Schultz, just be prepared to be covered in pink splotches.
If you prefer to go the natural route, there are some options that can at least temporarily relieve the itching. Keep in mind, says Schultz, that an effective treatment needs to target itching, swelling and pain.
Click through the natural treatments below, then let us know what else you've tried in the comments.
A shock of cold therapy will provide relief for itching and keep you from swelling more, says Schultz. "Ice actually numbs the nerves that conduct itching and pain so you don't feel either," he says. <br><br> You may have heard that going the other direction in temperature can also help. Hot water would in fact have the same effect on the nerves, says Schultz, but after you remove your warm compress or step out of that hot shower, you'll face a "rebound release of histamine that makes the itching worse," he says.
"Tea tree oil is one of my favorite essential oils in all of dermatology," says Schultz. It <a href="http://tlc.howstuffworks.com/family/treating-insect-bites-with-aromatherapy.htm" target="_hplink">acts as an anti-inflammatory</a>, so it can combat itching, swelling and pain, and it seems to also have anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties that can help prevent infection at the site of the bite, he explains. <br><br> Lavender oil can also help. "Lavender is the most versatile of all the essential oiils, with more benefits than you can shake a stick at," says Schultz. A dab on the skin can help reduce inflammation and pain and prevent infections, he says. <br><br> <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/badlydrawn/4685088481/" target="_hplink">.angels.</a></em>
This "way-underutilized" home remedy can help stop itching due to its acidity, says Schultz. He recommends diluting two or three cups in a bathtub of warm water to treat all-over bites, or putting a few drops on cotton and wiping an individual bite. Apple cider vinegar may be an even better bet, he adds, since it's slightly less acidic, and it's likely that the pH of itchy, red skin is off balance to begin with, he says. <br><br> <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/aroberts/4080080785/" target="_hplink">AndyRobertsPhotos</a></em>
Since this natural sweetener is known for a <a href="http://www.everydayhealth.com/diet-nutrition/8-health-benefits-of-honey-for-a-happy-new-year-sd.aspx" target="_hplink">wide range of health benefits</a>, including its anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties, it's not surprising that honey can also ease itchy bites. It's included in a number of natural lotions and balms for this exact reason, Everyday Health explains. <br><br> Schultz recommends opting for raw honey and only dabbing a little bit right on the bite. <br><br> <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/dphiffer/79606170/" target="_hplink">dphiffer</a></em>
Just like (cooled!) tea bags can <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/12/allergies-skin-problems_n_1418961.html" target="_hplink">reduce under-eye puffiness</a>, they can ease swelling on bites, too, says Schultz. The tannins in tea act as an astringent, he says, drawing extra fluid out of the bite.
"Sodium bicarbonate is a mild alkaline compound that <a href="http://www.prevention.com/doubledutyremedies/list/3.shtml" target="_hplink">can help neutralize the pH balance of your skin</a>," Dr. Linda K. Franks told <em>Prevention</em>. "This 'buffering effect' may help quell the inflammation that occurs at the skin's surface, easing your soreness." <br><br> Try dissolving some into a warm bath and soaking for 30 minutes, or mixing some with a little water to create a paste to apply directly to the bitten skin. <br><br> <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/f-oxymoron/5423065696/" target="_hplink">[F]oxymoron</a></em>
Baking soda can also work in conjunction with other remedies, says Schultz, like this plant-based astringent that, when applied in a paste with baking soda, will draw fluid out and reduce swelling at the bite. "There's a synergy, they work even better together," he says. <br><br> <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/zimpenfish/7074564449/" target="_hplink">zimpenfish</a></em>
The aromatic leaf naturally <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18401780" target="_hplink">contains camphor and thymol</a>, two compounds that can relieve itching, says Schultz. It's easy to crush some up and apply it to bites, or buy the essential oil and dab onto the skin. <br><br> <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/saragoldsmith/2541929711/" target="_hplink">saragoldsmith</a></em>
Both citrus fruits are anti-itch, anti-bacterial and anti-microbial, according to Schultz. The juice or the peel can "kill all sorts of bacteria" he says. <br><br> There is one downside, though. Just the way you used to squeeze lemon juice into your hair for beachy highlights, the oils will also react with the sun on your skin. "You'll get a blistering reaction," Schultz says. Stay safe by only using citrus-based remedies indoors. <br><br> <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/psd/2873520174/" target="_hplink">psd</a></em>
You may have heard that a dab of toothpaste can ease the itch, but it might be that minty-fresh flavoring that's at work. <br><br> "It causes a cooling sensation, [which] gets to the brain faster than the itching," Schultz says. Because the brain can only process one sensation at a time, cooling agents are often added to skin products to act as "counter-irritants" he says, which prevent and block other sensations, like itching. If you don't want to slather the chemicals in your toothpaste on your bites, try a drop of the essential oil or a paste made from crushed leaves.
While some people swear by this home remedy, there (perhaps unsurprisingly) isn't a whole lot of credible research to back it up. Schultz hypothesizes that the sugars in the chemical makeup of the skin of a banana could be soothing and draw fluid out from a bite. <br><br> <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/carbonnyc/7171600976/" target="_hplink">CarbonNYC</a></em>
For a soothing compress, Schultz recommends soaking equal parts milk and water into a handkerchief and applying it to the skin. "It's very soothing and helpful at relieving itching, swelling and inflammation," he says, "plus it's also a great technique for relieving sunburn." Skim works the best, he adds, as it's the protein and not the fat in milk that soothes the skin. <br><br> <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/elements/3937169441/" target="_hplink">tauress</a></em>
It sounds silly, but it works! "Slapping is a greater form of pain than itching," explains Schultz. "It's more startling, but it's not annoying the way itching is." The brain can only register one feeling at a time, he says, so you may get some relief from the itchiness when the pain of a slap takes over, even if you might feel strange inflicting that pain on yourself. <br><br> Squeezing the bite gently but firmly is another option (which may feel less 'out there'). These methods can ease all itchy bumps, adds Schultz, not just mosquito bites.
While it's primarily thought of as sunburn relief, aloe shouldn't be ignored in treating bites, says Schultz. "It's very good for itching and swelling and really is very soothing." <br><br> <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/veggiefrog/2252234971/" target="_hplink">veggiefrog</a></em>
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