Admit it, you’re delicious. That’s why bugs swarm whenever you’re near, and why a few hours spent in the great outdoors can make you feel like an easy target for every creepy robot buzzing around. When you get home and see all those red marks, you know you’re going to have a few irritating and uncomfortable days.
Even though they know a lot about the skin, dermatologists also get bitten by insects. Here’s what they say about dealing with an uncomfortable situation now – and maybe avoiding it in the future.
Ack! Why am I so itchy?
“When an insect bites our skin, it injects a tiny amount of saliva and this triggers an immune response,” said the dermatologist and Maei MD Skin Care founder Rebecca Marcus. “Histamine, the chemical that causes inflammation and itching, is released as a signal to the body to send white blood cells to fight off the offending agent.
Basically, says dermatologist Jeanette GrafClinical Professor of Dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, “Your skin develops an immune response to a foreign substance.”
What can I do? (And what should I avoid?)
First, be patient. “The itchiness can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few days, depending on the strength of your body’s reaction to the bite,” said a dermatologist. Joshua Zeichner, associate professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital.
“I recommend applying a topical steroid cream as soon as possible,” Marcus said. Another easy way to feel better fast is as close as your freezer. “Ice can help a bite feel better temporarily by constricting superficial blood vessels and decreasing inflammation,” she explained.
Graf suggested a few home remedies, including aloe vera. “It has anti-inflammatory properties that can help relieve itching,” she said. Another of her favorite treatments is baking soda baths. “These are great if you have multiple bug bites. The baking soda has anti-inflammatory properties and will relieve the itching for a while.
What should I avoid doing?
While you might be looking for something – anything – to relieve the itch, be aware that some things can be a bad idea. Dermatologist Loretta Ciraldo, founder of Dr. Loretta Skin Care, cautioned against applying heat to the area. “It will increase the redness, swelling and itching,” she said. “Also, don’t apply polysporin or other antibiotic ointments. These often cause allergic reactions and can actually make the bite worse instead of better.
And, as long as we’re on the to-do list, you know you shouldn’t scratch, right? “You can cause an open wound and increase the likelihood of developing an infection,” Zeichner said.
When should I see a doctor?
“If you’re so miserable that you can’t sleep, a dermatologist can help by providing you with a prescription steroid cream or oral medication to help relieve the itching,” Marcus said.
“If you develop significant swelling beyond the initial bite area, or have difficulty breathing, seek medical attention immediately,” Zeichner said.
“Seek medical attention if you develop a fever, which could mean the bite is infected,” Graf said. “If the bites are blistered and numerous, that’s also a sign to see a doctor.”
“If it’s been four to five days and the area is getting worse instead of better, see a doctor,” Ciraldo said. “If you see a red streak appear around the area, it could mean an infection that is getting into your bloodstream, usually from scratching too much.”
What can I do to avoid this next time?
“Use bug spray,” Marcus urged. “I swear by the fisherman’s formula (shown below), whose active ingredient is picaridin.” Studies have shown picaridin is as effective as DEET repelling mosquitoes. Unlike DEET, however, picaridin is odorless, non-oily, and does not dissolve plastics or other synthetic materials.
Here are some of the products recommended by dermatologists.
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Sawyer Fisherman’s Formula Insect Repellent
“I’m a mosquito magnet and I swear by this brand, which contains picaridin as an active ingredient,” Marcus said.
Aveeno Hydrocortisone Max 1% Anti-Itch Cream
“To reduce inflammation and itching, you can apply an over-the-counter anti-itch cream like this one,” Zeichner said.
“If you have multiple bites and you’re really miserable, you might want to take an antihistamine medication to help with the immune response,” Marcus said. “The sedative effect of some antihistamines can be a welcome relief at bedtime, if the itching keeps you awake at night.”
Aquaphor Maximum Strength Anti-Itch Ointment
“My favorite thing for bug bites is applying ice, followed by this product,” Ciraldo said.
Vaseline Intensive Care Advanced Repair Lotion
“I generally recommend applying moisturizers to insect-bitten skin to maintain skin barrier function,” Zeichner said.
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