If you've ever been bitten by a bunch of mosquitoes while your partner or friend manages to escape their bites and the itchy aftermath, it may feel like mosquitoes are unfairly targeting you. As it turns out, you may be right.
So what exactly draws mosquitoes to bite people in the first place? And why do some people get bitten more than others? Here's what experts have to say — and how to better protect yourself.
How do mosquitoes choose who to bite?
Mosquitoes — more specifically, female mosquitoes since they're the only ones who bite and need protein found in blood so their eggs can develop — use a variety of different cues to locate, land and then bite us, according Jeff Riffell, professor in the biology department at the University of Washington. It all starts with your breath.
"They first use carbon dioxide from our breath — the CO2 tells female mosquitoes that a potential 'meal' is nearby," explains Riffell. "The CO2 also turns on their vision, and they begin visually searching for objects that look like humans or other hosts."
After "seeing" a potential host, they will find out if a person "smells appropriate" before landing on that person — as Riffell puts it, "Indeed, to the mosquito, some folk smell better than others." Once a mosquito has landed on a potential host, if you have the "appropriate temperature and sweat, then they will bite you and begin feeding," Riffell says.
The color of the clothes you're wearing can also influence whether a mosquito finds you appealing or not. "Mosquitoes prefer some parts of the color spectrum over others," explains Riffell. "For example, they like orange and red, but they are not attracted to green or white. So if a person wore a white shirt, then they would be less attractive to a mosquito relative to a person wearing a red or black shirt."
Even your blood type may matter. "There is some evidence to suggest that blood group can play a role," Dr. Desiree LaBeaud, professor of pediatric infectious diseases at Stanford University, tells Yahoo Life. For example, a 2019 study published in the American Journal of Entomology found that mosquitoes had a high preference for blood type O.
Are certain people more likely to be bitten by mosquitoes?
"Yes! Some people are more attractive than others," says Riffell. "Factors like your body odor, your skin temperature, and if you are sweating a lot, all play a role."
So does that mean hanging out with someone who gets bitten more often than you can offer you some protection?
Potentially, says LaBeaud. "But I would not count on your poor partner to be mosquito bait for you," she adds. Fair enough.
Why do mosquito bites itch so much?
When a mosquito pierces your skin to feed on your blood, they also release their own saliva into your bloodstream, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Your body reacts to that saliva as an allergen, causing your immune system to release histamine. That, in turn, causes the area where you were bitten to swell and itch. According to the Cleveland Clinic, "Most people have a mosquito bite allergy."
What's the best way to treat an itchy mosquito bite?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends washing the area with soap and water, followed by applying an ice pack to the bites for 10 minutes to reduce swelling and itching.
There are several other steps you can take to reduce the itch. The CDC recommends mixing 1 tablespoon of baking soda with enough water to form a paste and then applying it to the mosquito bites. Leave the paste on for 10 minutes and then rinse it off.
LaBeaud recommends dabbing the itchy area with calamine lotion, which helps cool and soothe skin. She adds that 0.5% or 1% hydrocortisone cream can also help, but notes you should avoid applying it around the eyes.
What are the best ways to protect yourself from mosquitoes?
Common insect repellents, such as DEET and Picaridin, are "the most effective mosquito repellents, says Riffell. You can apply DEET to exposed skin and on clothes, but not on the skin under clothes. Some insect repellents, such as permethrin, aren’t meant to be applied directly to the skin so it's important to closely follow the directions when applying insect repellents, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Also, if you're applying sunscreen, the CDC recommends putting on the sunscreen first, followed by insect repellent.
Wearing long sleeves, long pants and socks can also help protect you from mosquito bites. While mosquitoes can bite through thin fabrics (think gauzy cotton tops and Spandex yoga pants), they have a harder time getting through thicker fabrics or loose-fitting clothing — and in general, prefer biting exposed skin.
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