Summertime brings with it many gifts—longer days, warmer weather, beach trips…oh, and mosquitoes. While these tiny flying insects are simply a nuisance for most, for other people who experience allergic reactions, they can be a nightmare.
According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology (AAAAI), contact with a mosquito must last at least six seconds in order for a reaction to occur. But your best bite prevention is to avoid contact in the first place, says Valencia Thomas, MD, a dermatologist at McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth). “You don’t know what reaction you’ll have, so it’s always a good idea to practice good protection when out in nature,” she says.
Wear protective clothing like long sleeves and pants, eat bug-repelling foods like garlic, use insect repellent, keep food scents and fragrances to a minimum, and limit exposure where mosquitoes thrive—in shady, wooded areas and stagnant water, particularly during the dusk and dawn hours.
Most mosquito bite “allergies” aren’t really allergies
For most of us, a mosquito bite is simply an itchy annoyance. “A normal reaction to a mosquito bite includes red, swollen, itchy bumps that occur within minutes of the bite and can linger for up to 10 days,” says Kara Wada, MD, an assistant professor of allergy and immunology at Ohio State University in Columbus, OH. More extreme symptoms, such as larger bumps and significant swelling, indicate what’s called a large local reaction—this is also known as Skeeter Syndrome.
“When people say they are allergic, it’s mostly the large local reaction that they’re actually referring to,” says Nick Hartog, MD, an allergist at Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, MI. In order to make a diagnosis, your doctor will take into account your symptoms, but there is no official test to detect mosquito bite allergies. “Sometimes patients come in with the expectation that there will be some kind of testing involved, but there’s no commercially available test for a mosquito bite allergy,” says Dr. Hartog. “Our diagnosis is based on listening to a patient’s history and looking at pictures versus any particular blood or skin test.”
As for treatment, that depends entirely on how much the symptoms are affecting you, says Dr. Hartog. “If it’s not bothering you, then there’s no reason for treatment,” he says. “But if it’s causing issues like swelling on your eyelid, or if the symptoms are uncomfortable and you are prone toward pretty severe reactions, we can do a daily non-sedating antihistamine like Claritin or Allegra; these can help with swelling and can reduce your risk of developing a reaction.”
Occasionally, topical or oral steroids like prednisone are prescribed, but “we try to…reserve those for only the most extreme cases because of the side effects involved.” In the case of a more serious systemic reaction, your doctor may prescribe you an EpiPen, an injection that contains epinephrine. “This is very rare, though; we really don’t see it as much for mosquitoes as we do for bees and wasps,” says Dr. Thomas.
For most mosquito bite reactions, follow these 6 dos and don’ts for the fastest recovery. A rarer form of mosquito bite allergy is a systemic reaction that occurs throughout the body. This type of life-threatening reaction is much more common with insects like bees and wasps, but if you experience any of the following symptoms after a bite, you need to call 911 immediately, advises Dr. Thomas.
Suddenly breaking out into itchy, swollen, pale red bumps either in the area of the bite or all over your body could indicate an allergic reaction.
Swelling in mouth, lips, or throat
“Any sudden swelling in your lower face can be a sign of a serious reaction,” says Dr. Thomas.
If you suddenly feel nauseated as if you’re going to get sick after a bite, that can be another symptom of a serious reaction, says Dr. Thomas.
Feeling lightheaded and unsteady on your feet can indicate a systemic allergic reaction.
Breaking out in a fever is a signal that your body is fighting off an allergy.
A severe headache that comes on quickly could mean you’re having an allergic reaction. If you’re not sure whether a mosquito bite was responsible.