You spray yourself with bug spray or fire up a citronella candle before your outdoor BBQ, but sometimes those pesky little bugs can still find you.
When a bug like a mosquito bites you, it injects a bit of saliva. The saliva contains compounds that prevent the blood from clotting and keep the immune system at bay for a bit while they feed. Eventually the immune response does kick in ― long after the bug flies away ― which triggers the itch.
So how can you control that itch? Scratching a bug bite might provide temporary relief, but experts warn it can make the itch even worse. And a quick Google search will yield lots of DIY remedies, but not all of them actually work.
We consulted with some experts to bring you this guide on what really helps and what to do after you get a bug bite:
First, a quick primer on which bug bites actually cause an itch.
“Pretty much any kind of bug bite can itch,” said Adnan Mir, a pediatric dermatologist and member of the Society for Pediatric Dermatology. Mosquitos are obviously the most common, but there are lots of other culprits, he added. Flea bites can be extremely itchy, so if you aren’t noticing mosquitos around but have been getting bites, have your pets checked out.
“Gnats and midges can also cause itchy bites,” Mir said. And critters that aren’t technically bugs (think arachnids like spiders) can also cause bites that itch. “If you think you’ve been bitten by a spider, check with your doctor, since some spider bites can be much more than just a nuisance, and sometimes skin infections can be mistaken for spider bites,” Mir added.
Some insect bites burn more than they itch, such as fire ants, which can be found in the southern United States. Horsefly bites, according to Mir, are usually painful, although they may also itch. And tick bites tend to not itch, unless ticks have bitten you in the past, which could cause your body to have an immune response to the proteins in a tick’s saliva.
If you feel the bite, take action right away to prevent additional ones.
“If you’re getting one bug bite, you’re probably getting more,” Mir said. And the more bug bites you get, the more itching you will experience.
If you have not yet taken precautions and feel a bug get you, this is when you want to consider applying an insect repellent or go indoors, Mir advised.
Next, wash the area where you’ve been bit.
Natalie Aguilar, a Los Angeles-based aesthetician and dermatological nurse, said to clean the area with warm, soapy water.
“When a mosquito breaks the skin, its saliva enters, and our body instantly reacts against their saliva creating what’s known as a histamine response — which most of the time creates a welt,” she explained. So you first want to wash the area with warm, soapy water in hopes of washing away residual saliva.
It’s also important to remove any stingers that you can see or to remove the bug itself (in the case of ticks).
Resist the urge to scratch.
While it’s tempting to claw at the bite, work hard to refrain from itching it or the area surrounding it. “Scratching can release more histamine and make the itching more intense,” said Dylan Alston, a dermatologist with Intermountain Healthcare in Utah.
And be extra mindful at night. Mir said “often at night, when we’re not as engaged in our day-to-day activities and there’s no one to judge us for going after an itch, we notice the itch more,” he said. Then you scratch at it, cause more histamine release, and feed into the cycle.
Cool down your skin.
“Placing a cold compress like an ice pack or frozen vegetables in a bag onto the skin for two or three minutes can help suppress the itch of a bug bite,” Alston said.
This helps to minimize the itch and swelling because itch and cold receptors are on the same “circuit” of the brain, added Tania Elliott, a telemedicine expert and chief medical officer at Virtual Care. “So if you are experiencing cold, you will have less itching.”
Mir said that refrigerated aloe vera gel may also have the same results. Just make sure to limit the amount of time you a cold compress on your skin to minimize cold exposure.
Try an over-the-counter cream ...
Look for lotions that contain pramocaine. “Pramocaine is a mild topical anesthetic that is often included as an itch-relieving ingredient in many brands of moisturizers,” Mir said. Products containing menthol, he said, also have a cooling effect when applied topically.
Seth R. Newton, a scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency, said you should also look for creams that contain hydrocortisone or a form of diphenhydramine as their active ingredient.
Hydrocortisone is a steroid that reduces your body’s natural immune response to the bug bite and reduces the itching and swelling, Newton said. “And diphenhydramine (Benadryl) is an antihistamine that works by blocking the natural substance histamine, which triggers allergic reactions such as itching.”
You can also try calamine lotion, which has the active ingredient zinc oxide. “Scientists haven’t fully worked out the mechanism of action but one theory is that the zinc prevents your cells from secreting histamine as a reaction to the bug bite,” Newton said. “Nevertheless, anyone who has ever tried calamine lotion on a bug bite will attest that it works.”
... Or some rubbing alcohol.
Nicholas Martin, an entomologist and founder of Pest Control Hacks, has found that applying rubbing alcohol to his bug bites helps to take some of the itch away.
“This simple remedy will cool and soothe the skin,” he explained. Cleaning a bite with rubbing alcohol also helps to remove excess insect saliva, which may help your body to have less of a reaction to a bite.
If you’d rather, you can try making your own itch-relief solutions.
Baking soda mixed with water can sometimes provide some itch relief. “We’re not exactly sure why this works, but it may have something to do with neutralizing acids that mediate the itch locally,” Mir said.
This can be applied as a paste to individual bites, or if you’re covered in bites, you can bathe in a tub full of cool water with a cup or so of baking soda.
Aguilar uses an all-natural DIY oatmeal paste to reduce itching. “Oatmeal is rich in beta glucan, which helps boost our skin’s immunity, soothe irritation and speed up wound healing,” she said.
Blend dry oats into a powder and slowly add water to make a paste. Apply to the area and leave on for 10 minutes, then rinse off. You can also store a batch in the refrigerator and apply it cold.
Or, if you really need to, take an antihistamine pill.
Mir explained that part of the itch reaction is caused by release of histamine from white blood cells that are attracted to the area of a bite. On top of that, scratching can cause more histamine to be released. “Using an antihistamine can help break the itch-scratch cycle,” he said.
Mir suggested consulting your doctor before taking an antihistamine for more than a couple of days and to remember that some antihistamines (like diphenhydramine) can cause drowsiness and may not be the right choice for daytime itchiness.
Remember that a little prevention goes a long way.
Most of all, if you don’t want a red welt or itchy bump, it’s important to take steps to keep bugs from making contact with your skin in the first place. Avoid standing water, lakes or rivers, which tend to be a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
“Secondly, apply an insect repellent with DEET or oil of lemon eucalyptus, which can prevent or deter the mosquito from biting,” Alston said.
For small children and infants, consider using nets or coverings on strollers and car seats. Long-sleeved clothing and other protective measures are best.
“If you are using sunscreen, apply sunscreen first and then the insect repellent,” Alston said.