Will Nothing Stop That Infernal Itch?

By Jennifer Huget
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Some people say banana peels do the trick. Others swear by butter, nail polish or a hair dryer turned on high and aimed at the invasion site. And then there's you, ogling a shelf-full of various drugstore potions and rub-ons, each with a different active ingredient and all claiming to relieve the infernal itching of bug bites.

You can't be blamed for wondering, at the height of mosquito season: Does any of this stuff work?

To a degree -- some of it does. Two dermatologists gave us the buzz on bite remedies. Try not to scratch too much as you read.

Know Thy Enemy Mosquitoes don't just suck your blood (which the females need for reproductive purposes); they also deposit a protein that keeps it from coagulating as they drink. As in many allergic reactions, your body responds by releasing histamines to try to fight off the foreign matter. It's the histamines that make the bite site swell into a hard red bump and itch. (That bump's called a wheal, by the way.) When you scratch, says Nathaniel Beers, medical director of the children's health center at Children's Hospital in the District, you start a vicious cycle: Scratching releases more histamines, which make the itching worse.

So why are you itching while those around you are just fine? It's not that you're such a special taste treat to the little bloodsuckers. Some people's allergic reactions to mosquito saliva are simply stronger than others, says Nanette Silverberg, director of pediatric dermatology at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York.

Your companion might get bitten and hardly notice, while you're riddled with red welts and itching like mad. An individual's reaction can change over time and with repeated exposure, Silverberg says. And, she notes, your body might respond differently to the spit of different mosquito species found in various locales.

Option 1: Wait It Out Depending on how strong your allergic response is, you'll generally start feeling a bite's itch within a few minutes or a few hours. Most bites stop itching within 24 to 48 hours, Silverberg says.

Of those hours, the ones that will be most excruciating are those when you're trying to fall asleep.

Why do bug bites itch so much more then?

They don't. Silverberg and Beers agree that the sensation of increased itchiness is merely a function of your being less busy, less distracted as you try to relax into slumber.

"That's the case with all medical conditions that itch," Silverberg explains.

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