Picture it: You’re having a perfect summer night, sitting around the campfire and laughing with friends. But while you spend the evening slapping away endless swaths of bloodthirsty pests, your pals, for some reason, are able to enjoy themselves unscathed by the unwanted party crashers. Okay, confession: The “you” in this vignette is actually me, and this very summertime scenario is one that’s repeated itself in my life every single year. For the life of me, I’ve never been able to figure out why I’m so much more susceptible to bug bites than other people I know. Is it me? Is it them? How can I put an end to it so I can stop calling summer “the season of itchiness?” And, seriously, why are mosquitoes attracted to me more than everyone else I know?
If you’re anything like me, good news: You’re not crazy. There are some specific science-backed reasons to explain why bugs can’t get enough of you—and ways to make them mind their own business a bit more effectively.
Why, exactly, the bugs bite
“The response to any insect bite varies from one person to the next,” says Delaware-based dermatologist Gina Caputo, DO. “Insect venoms and saliva cause immediate and delayed type reactions.” Meaning, just because I’m itchy basically as soon as I see a mosquito and am left with veritable welts as soon as one gives me a “kiss” doesn’t necessarily prove they aren’t also targeting the people around me. Rather, it points to me reacting more severely to the bite. “The variability in each person’s immune response is what dictates the varying clinical manifestations rather than the bite itself,” Dr. Caputo says.
And the delayed (even if just slightly) mark you get after a bite incident is your immune system at work. “The red itchy bump that forms is your body’s immune response against the saliva allergen,” says New York-based dermatologist Samer Jaber, MD.
Why are mosquitoes attracted to me more than other people?
First of all, this isn’t necessarily in your head—you may, in fact, be more attractive to mosquito interest than others are, and there are a few reasons why. “Mosquitoes are attracted to sights and smells,” says Dr. Jaber. “The female mosquito (as it is only females that bite) are primarily attracted to us by the carbon dioxide excreted when breathing—our metabolic rate. A significant portion of our metabolic rate is preset, but things can influence it.” For instance, exercising, consuming alcohol, and pregnancy can all raise metabolic rate, thus theoretically attracting mosquitoes, he says, adding that exercise and pregnancy specifically can elevate body temperature, which mosquitoes also like.
Research has shown that Type O blood is twice as attractive to mosquitoes as Type A, while Type B and AB are somewhere in the middle.
Furthermore, some scents mosquitoes are attracted to include lactic acid, ammonia, uric acid, and estrogen. “These are naturally released by our bodies, and every individual has a different level of excretion. That is another reason why some people are more likely to get bit than others,” Dr. Jaber says.
And, Dr. Jaber confirms that maxim you may have heard about mosquitoes preferring sweeter blood is somewhat true. (They are bloodsuckers, after all.) Research has shown that Type O blood is twice as attractive to them as Type A, while Type B and AB are somewhere in the middle, he says.
Okay, I’m a mosquito magnet—now what?
Both Dr. Caputo and Dr. Jaber recommend using the insect repellent DEET with a concentration of at least 10 percent as the first course of action preventing bug bites. “That should be effective for two hours. If you are going to be out longer, consider a higher-strength repellent of 30 percent,” Dr. Jaber says.
While DEET is arguably the most effective, it might not be your thing. In this case, Dr. Jaber suggests trying picaridin insect repellents, or essential oil-based repellents, such as citronella and eucalyptus. Beyond repellents though, the clothes you wear can also be a factor. “Mosquitoes prefer dark clothing and can detect movement, so avoid wearing black in the summer, and avoid unnecessary movement when around mosquitos,” Dr. Jaber says. Dr. Caputo adds that permethrin clothing sprays are great to use as well.
And since Dr. Jaber notes that mosquitoes prefer dusk and dawn, when wind is typically lower, avoiding being outside during those times can be helpful for avoiding bites. Furthermore, use that wind mosquitoes aren’t great at navigating to your advantage—personal fans can be a deterrent to them.
Post-bite life, 101
Even if you’ve taken all the proper precautions, sometimes those little suckers can still do their worst. Once you’re left with a red bump or two (or three or four), go against your instinct to scratch. Dr. Jaber says letting your nails have at the bites will only up the itch-factor.
Instead, Dr. Caputo suggests OTC hydrocortisone creams, calamine lotion and/or antihistamines, which can help with the itching associated with mosquito bites. “If there are multiple bites or severe discomfort and swelling, a stronger steroid cream and antihistamines may need to be prescribed by a physician,” she adds.
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