Medically reviewed by, Russell Braun RPH
Nothing can kill the enjoyment of an outdoor event quite like bug bites. Even though they are for the most part harmless, bugs drive most people crazy. Nobody wants bug bites that swell and cause persistent itching all over their skin.
Bugs are able to hone in on people by sensing the carbon dioxide we exhale. The more people around you, the more carbon dioxide and you guessed it… more bugs!
So what can you do?
There are numerous ways to prevent and treat bug bites. From prescription medications to home remedies. With so many option available the goal is to find what works best for you. Not all remedies will work everyone due to variations in metabolism, genetics and immune system exposure.
#1 Bug bite symptoms
Depending on the reaction of your immune system, bug bite symptoms usually last 24-48 hours. If you are not sure if a bug bit you or not, you can normally identify a bug bite by these mild symptoms.
- Burning sensation
Any time that more severe symptoms occur you should seek medical attention. These type of symptoms include:
- Rashes that continue to expand
- Swelling of the neck or throat area
- Difficulty breathing or swallowing
#2 Types of bugs
While there are thousands of different bugs, most people come into contact with a small list of them. Depending on the area the list of bugs can vary greatly. In the United States some of the most common bug bites come from the following bugs.
- Bed bugs
- Yellow jackets
Typically the bite or sting only results in mild pain, swelling or itching. The real problem lies when bacteria, viruses or parasites are given an easy way to attack from a break in the skin. Many harmful diseases and viruses can cause long term problems, which is why it is always best to try and prevent bug bites when possible.
Avoiding insect bites can be accomplished by staying indoors. However, that leads to problems of its own as the immune system does not get exposed to as many allergens. What can be done to keep bugs away when you want to be outside on that beautiful summer day?
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) offers recommendations on how to prevent bug bites, both at home and when you travel. Avoiding areas where bugs congregate is the number one recommendation from the CDC.
Wearing appropriate clothing is key. Light, breathable long sleeve shirts and pants can keep the majority of the body from being exposed to bugs. If you are walking in areas that have tall grass or weeds the shoes you wear will make a big difference. Shoes or boots that pant legs can be tucked into protect you against bugs that may go up your pant legs.
Going to be out in the early morning, evening or nighttime? These are prime times for bugs. Most bugs tend to come out more when temperatures cool off and knowing this can help you protect yourself. Socks and shoes instead of sandals can prevent bites to the feet and ankles. A towel or bandana to put around your neck can prevent those bites to the areas just outside of your clothing lines.
#4 Bug hangouts
Bugs, especially mosquitos tend to be attracted to water. Mosquitos use still bodies of water to lay their eggs. Therefore, removing places where even small amounts of water can pool and sit can reduct the number of bugs in your environment. Even when you are outside and start to sweat, bugs may be attracted to the sweat on your skin.
Plants such as trees and bushes that can retain water from dew. They also provide shade making theses areas a perfect place for bugs to congregate. The cooler temperatures in the shade give bugs a place to hide out in hot daytime full sun hours. Keep this in mind when you consider where to gather when your outside.
Some bugs such as mosquitoes are also drawn to carbon dioxide that humans and other animals exhale. Therefore, the more people the more bugs. The heavier the breathing the more carbon dioxide is exhaled, thus groups of people draw more bugs. When you have groups of people exercising and sweating, this would be even more attractive to certain bugs. The small amounts of sweat on your skin will attract bugs in addition to the carbon dioxide.
Strong odors also attract bugs. These can come in the form of body odor, from not showering or wearing deodorant. If you get strong smelling things on you while outside it may make sense to wash them off instead of spending the rest of your outdoor time swatting at bugs. Finally, don’t put on a lot of strong perfume or cologne prior to entering bug territory.
#5 Ways to repel bugs
Insect repellents can help keep bugs at bay. Bug spray products such as Off, Repel, Cutter and Sawyer all contain somewhere between 20 to 30 percent of the active ingredient N, N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide (DEET).
When applied correctly, these products are effective at repelling mosquitoes, biting flies, chiggers, gnats ticks and fleas. However, you need to apply the product to your face (keep out of the eyes), body and clothing. Many people forget to get areas just above the sock line and the hands but there are prime bug targets for pesky bugs.
Sunscreen is very important if you are going to be outside for extended periods. It should be applied before bug sprays and either be rubbed in or allowed to dry prior to bug spray being used.
#6 I got bit, now what?
The first thing to do is to wash the area off with soap and water. This prevents the allergen that your immune system is reacting to from being spread any further. Stings, may result in the stinger of the insect still being lodged in the skin. The stinger should be removed with fingernails or tweezers if possible.
Pain from bug bites can be reduced by putting ice on them. Wrap ice in a towel or cloth to prevent direct damage to the skin. This can serve two purposes, reduce swelling which can cause pain and numb the area to reduce itching.
#7 How can I reduce the pain?
In most cases the pain from a bug bite or sting is short lasting. It may be an intense pain but the intensity goes away quickly. Bites and stings that are continually painful usually occur in areas of the body where movement causes them to rub other areas. Swelling can also add to pain.
One option for painful bug bites are numbing creams or lotions. Most of these contain either benzocaine or lidocaine that will numb the skin. These come by many brand names such as Lanacane. While numbing the skin is effective at stopping the pain, they are short acting and need to be reapplied frequently.
Most bites will not require any type of oral medication for the pain. However, if you find yourself hurting or unable to sleep due to bug bites then you can try using acetaminophen, ibuprofen or naproxen. These are all over the counter and provide pain relief while being generally safe. If you have a heart problems or bleeding issues, then acetaminophen would be the best bet.
The over the counter doses in the table below should be the starting point for bug bites. Make sure to get the generic versions as the brands provide no additional benefit, but are higher priced.
|Acetaminophen||325mg – 500mg|
|Ibuprofen||200mg – 400mg|
|Naproxen||220mg – 440mg|
#7 How do you stop bug bites from itching?
Itching might be the symptom that makes people hate bug bites the most. It can be downright maddening as the bite seems like it can never be itched enough. When this happens you have a few options.
- Benzocaine cream or spray – these type of products stop itching by numbing your skin. It does work and can provide relief. The downside is they are short acting and have to be applied multiple times per day.
- Steroid cream – These creams work to reduce the response your immune system is having the bug bite. You can buy generic hydrocortisone 1% over the counter, which is cheap and always a good thing to have in your medicine cabinet.
- Antihistamine– These products help decrease the itching that is caused when histamine is released. Many brands are available over the counter as a cream or tablet. The most common cream used for bug bites is diphenhydramine cream, which is also generic.
- Calamine lotion– This topical solution you place over the bug bite helps to decrease the secretions that come from the bite or sting and thus keep you from itching.
Before you apply any medicine make sure to trim your fingernails. This will prevent you from scratching and further irritating the skin around the bite. If you must itch use the side or back of the hand to scratch instead of your fingers. This will help ensure you don’t scratch the area and end up with an infection.
#8 How do you reduce swelling from bug bites?
Swelling is the immune systems way to kill off what was causing the problem to the body and then to repair the area. Bug bites cause swelling due to an offending agent such as a stinger or antigens from the bugs bite are left in the skin and the immune system begins to attack that area.
The easiest way to reduce swelling is to apply ice to the area as soon as possible. Swelling leads to increased blood flow into the area. More blood flow allows more histamine to be release, which worsens swelling. Applying ice helps to constrict blood vessels making it harder to get more blood in that has more histamine to release.
Other ways to reduce swelling are steroid creams and anthistamines as described above.
#9 Baking Soda
Baking soda which can be found in most households is a simple method to help releive itching and burning of the skin. While no studies have proven this effective in bug bites, it has been shown to slow itching in psoriasis. A skin condition with much more severe itching symptoms.
Baking soda is simply sodium bicarbonate which is used for many conditions in modern medicine and around the house. For skin irritation making a paste by mixing baking soda and water and applying it to the bite will relieve itching. Using a tablespoonful of baking soda and water to make a paste is all that is needed for a few bites. In the psoriasis study they had patients who had psoriasis in many areas of the skin take a baking soda bath. This could also work for people who have bug bites in many places.
#10 Aloe Vera
Aloe Vera is the first thing people think of for a sunburn, right? Well a sunburn is just swollen skin from the burn. Therefore, it would make sense that Aloe Vera would be beneficial for bug bites that swell also.
Topical gel or creams with Aloe Vera have been proven to be effective in many skin conditions and wound healing. Many products exist that have varying strengths of Aloe Vera in them. Make sure you compare the milligrams or percentage before selecting a product.
Oatmeal has longed been used as a topical treatment for a variety of skin conditions. These include rashes, burns and itching. A study found Oatmeal to be effective at treating all of these conditions.
Use fresh oats and make a paste by mixing it with a small amount of water. Put the past on your skin and let it dry. There are also Oatmeal containing lotions that can be rubbed into the affected area.
#12 Lavender Oil
Lavender oil has been proven to have anti-inflammatory properties. Since inflammation is causing the itching and swelling from bug bites it makes sense this would be an effective treatment.
Several Lavender oil products are available on the market. Most will recommend dosing by number of drops. Typically, a few drops on the bite will help relieve itching and swelling. Depending on the brand there may be a stinging sensation when applying the oil, due to other ingredients in the oil. If you notice this you can try mixing a few drops of oil with a few drops of water to prevent the stinging sensation.
#13 How does vinegar stop itching from bug bites?
Apple cider vinegar has been shown in a clinical trial to reduce symptoms of skin varicosity, which is swelling. While this study was not looking directly at apple cider vinegar for bug bites, the beneficial effects on swelling could be similar.
Vinegar is mildly acidic and this may offer some of it’s benefit for itching and swelling. This acidity level also gives vinegar antibacterial properties as well which can help reduce inflammation. All of these make apple cider vinegar a good candidate for helping bug bite symptoms. Using a cotton ball is an easy way to apply apple cider vinegar liquid.
The sweet tasting Honey produced by Honey bees has long been used for medicinal purposes. It is believed that honey has antimicrobial properties which make it a prime candidate for wound care.
There is a small amount of clinical evidence that Honey may be effective at treating conditions such as atopic dermatitis and wound healing. More research is needed from large, clinical trials to confirm these benefits. However, treating bug bites with home remedies such as honey is a relatively safe option people could try and see if it works for them. Keep in mind that honey if very sticky and when applied to the skin may look and feel unpleasant when it dries.
#15 Witch Hazel
Witch hazel has been used for many years as an astringent. Astringents are agents that cause contraction of skin cells or other body tissues. It has also been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties. Both of these would be beneficial for bug bites due to the swelling and inflammation that is occurring.
It is believed witch hazel has these effects because it contains tannins, which also have antioxidant properties. There are numerous forms of witch hazel available in creams and oils. However, possibly the best form for bug bites would be the medicated pads that allow you to wipe the bug bites with witch hazel easily. If you don’t have the pads, applying witch hazel to a cotton ball and applying to the bite is also effective.
The best method to keep bug bites from covering your skin is to avoid the bugs in the first place. If you can’t avoid them totally then using preventative measures mentioned above are the next best idea. Once you do get a bite reaching for over the counter and home remedies that have proven to be effective is the right next step.
Don’t fall into some marketing pitch by a company that claims to have the perfect new product when so many have already been shown to work well. This mindset will help you get rid of bites and keep your hard earned money in your pocket.
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