Face it, you’re delicious. That’s why bugs swarm around whenever you’re near, and why a few hours in the great outdoors can make you feel like an easy target for every creepy crawler that’s buzzing by. When you get home and see all those red marks, you know you’re in for an itchy and uncomfortable few days.
Even though they know lots of things about skin, dermatologists get bug bites, too. Here’s what they say about dealing with an uncomfortable situation now — and perhaps 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 dermatologist and Maei MD Skincare 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, said dermatologist Jeanette Grafclinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, “Your skin is mounting an immune response to a foreign substance.”
What can I do? (And what should I avoid?)
First, be patient. “Itching can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few days, depending on how robust a reaction your body has to the bite,” said dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, an 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 soon is as close as your freezer. “Ice can help a bite to temporarily feel better by constricting superficial blood vessels and decreasing inflammation,” she explained.
Graf suggests some home remedies, including aloe vera. “It has anti-inflammatory properties that can help relive the itching,” she said. Another of her favorite treatments is baking soda baths. “They’re great if you have multiple bug bites. The baking soda has anti-inflammatory properties and will alleviate the itching for some time.”
What should I avoid doing?
While you may be searching for something — anything — to take the itch away, be aware that some things might be a bad idea. dermatologist Loretta Ciraldo, founder of Dr. Loretta Skincare, warned against applying heat to the area. “It will increase the redness, swelling and itch,” she said. “Also, don’t apply polysporin or other antibiotic ointments. These often cause allergic reactions, and they can actually make the bite worse instead of better.”
And, while we’re on the list of things not to do, 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 miserable to the point where you cannot sleep, a dermatologist can help by providing a prescription strength steroid cream or oral medication to help ease the itching,” Marcus said.
“If you’re developing any significant swelling beyond the area of the initial bite, or if you’re having difficulty breathing, seek medical care immediately,” Zeichner said.
“See a doctor if you develop a fever, which might mean that the bite is infected,” Graf said. “If the bites are blistered and numerous, that’s a sign to see a doctor, too.”
“If it’s been four to five days and the area is getting worse instead of better, seek medical attention,” Ciraldo said. “If you see a red streak coming up around the area, that can mean an infection that’s getting into your blood, usually from scratching too much.”
What can I do to prevent this next time?
“Use insect repellent,” urged Marcus. “I wear by Fisherman’s Formula (featured below), whose active ingredient is picaridin.” Studies have shown picaridin to be as effective as DEET in repelling mosquitoes. Unlike DEET, however, picaridin is odorless, non-greasy and does not dissolve plastics or other synthetics.
Here are some of the products dermatologists recommended.
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Sawyer Fisherman’s Formula insect repellent
“I’m a mosquito magnet, and I wear by this brand, which has picaridin as an active ingredient,” Marcus said.
Aveeno maximum strength 1% hydrocortisone anti-itch cream
“To reduce inflammation and itch, you can apply an over-the-counter anti-itch cream like this one,” Zeichner said.
“If you have several bites and are really miserable, you may want to take an antihistamine medication to ease the immune response,” Marcus said. “The sedating effect of some antihistamines may be a welcome relief at bedtime, if itching is keeping you awake at night.”
Aquaphor maximum strength itch relief ointment
“My favorite thing for bug bites is to apply ice, followed by this product,” Ciraldo said.
Vaseline Intensive Care Advanced Repair Lotion
“I usually recommend applying moisturizers to bug-bitten skin to maintain the skin barrier function,” Zeichner said.