A mosquito bite's effects go far further than the initial itch. Find out what really happens when one of these suckers gets under your skin.
In countries around the world, mosquito bites are a rite of passage, an indication that the weather is warming up and that summer is almost here. However, what actually happens to your body when a mosquito bites you might come as a shock to even those who provide a veritable feast to these pests year after year.
According to the World Health Organization, mosquitos are the greatest carriers of disease in the animal kingdom, causing millions of deaths around the world each year, largely due to their spread of potentially-fatal illnesses like malaria, Japanese encephalitis, leishmaniasis, and both yellow and dengue fevers, meaning understanding them—and knowing how to protect against them—is a great first step toward saying healthy.
So, what exactly happens when a mosquito bites you?
To begin, the term “bite” is a bit of a misnomer. After landing on you, the female mosquito extends her proboscis, a narrow part of the mouth used to retrieve blood, into the skin, piercing it in an effort to find a blood vessel that will provide her an adequate blood supply to drink from. However, it’s not because mosquitos are hungry for your blood that they bite you, per se: mosquitos need to feed on protein-rich meals, like your blood, to produce eggs and propagate their species.
Once under your skin, the mosquito injects the host with a vasodilator, helping them keep that blood flowing rather than clotting while they’re feeding. So, what does your body do in response?
“When a mosquito bites us, our body’s immune system creates histamines, causing the skin around the mosquito bite to itch,” says Dr. Renee Matthews, MD. However, just because you’ve been bitten by a mosquito doesn’t mean you’ll notice immediately. If you find yourself itching hours later, that’s perfectly normal. “Redness and swelling are part of the immune reaction, as well,” says Dr. Matthews. “But [the histamine response] sometimes does not happen right away, but a couple hours after the mosquito’s saliva is introduced to the body.”
Dr. Christopher Hollingsworth, MD, a doctor at NYC Surgical Associates, adds, “When your body has identified that the bug’s saliva is in your system, from when it has sucked your blood, your lymphocytes (white blood cells) will go to where the bug bite is to try and kill the saliva off. This is then why your body creates a swelling bump that is itchy.”
The good news? While mosquitos may be responsible for a wide variety of potentially-lethal diseases, the odds that you’ll have an anaphylactic reaction to the bite itself are low. “Deadly mosquito allergies are very rare,” reassures Dr. Matthews.
If you’re looking to make yourself less appealing to mosquitoes, research published in PLOS One reveals that a diversity of skin bacteria is one factor in making certain people attractive to mosquitos while others seem less appetizing, suggesting that a few extra showers during those sweaty summer days may help you from becoming a mosquito feast.
And, sadly for those who like to have a beer on a warm night, that habit might be making mosquitos find you delicious. Researchers at Toyama Medical and Pharmaceutical University in Japan found that study subjects were stung significantly more often after drinking beer than prior. Other factors that can influence your risk of becoming a mosquito’s next meal include your blood type, exercise habits, and whether or not you’re pregnant; the latter two factors increase your body’s temperature and carbon dioxide production, making you a veritable mosquito magnet.
If you want to stay safe, a little bug spray goes a long way, but that doesn’t have to mean you have to slather your skin with DEET. In fact, a study published in the Journal of the American Mosquito Control Association found that eucalyptus oil was also an effective means of keeping those suckers at bay.
And if you do get bitten, make sure to leave the bite alone so it can heal faster. “The best way for it to go away is to try not to itch the area and let it go away on its own. Typically, by the next day it will have subsided and two or three days later, the bite will be healed by your white blood cells,” says Dr. Hollingsworth. “If you are having a bad reaction apply ice for relief! And if you feel yourself getting sick or think the bite is abnormal, go check with your doctor.” And when you want to make your skin healthier, start with the 30 Best Ways to Have Your Best Skin!