A speck of black floats past your face or a wispy buzz sounds in your ear. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can detect the presence of mosquitoes before they’ve had a chance to bite. But in most cases, you don’t notice them until one or two (or five) have feasted on your ankles and elbows, causing itchy, red welts to rise up on your skin.
But, why do mosquito bites itch so badly? “As part of the feeding process, all blood-feeding organisms introduce saliva into the wound,” explains Jonathan Day, Ph.D., a mosquito researcher and professor of medical entomology at the University of Florida.
Proteins in a mosquito’s saliva prevent your blood vessels from clotting, Day says, which allows the mosquito to extract your blood more quickly and efficiently. Once the mosquito has finished its meal and departed, its salivary proteins stay behind. “Your immune system sees those proteins as a foreign substance, and immediately attacks them with histamine,” Day says.
Histamine is an immune chemical your cells release in response to the presence of an injury, allergens, or other irritants. And it’s this histamine that produces the itching and swelling some people experience following a mosquito bite, Day explains.
He says “some people” because, surprisingly, not everyone experiences an itchy reaction to mosquito bites. “For most people, the first time they’re bitten by a type of mosquito, they get that reaction,” Day explains. “But as you’re bitten more, most people cease to have a reaction.” Basically, your immune system learns that a particular type of mosquito’s bite is not a threat, and so it stops freaking out every time that species of blood-sucker bites you, he says.
But this isn’t true for all people, Day adds. Some of us never stop experiencing that itch. Also, if you travel to a new place with new types of mosquitoes that your immune system hasn’t been exposed to before, you’re likely to get an itchy, inflamed reaction to a bite.
Of course, the best way to stop mosquito bites is to prevent them in the first place with an effective insect repellent. If you do suffer from a bite, the itching should go away within two to three days, Day says.
Don’t want to wait that long? A number of home remedies can help you get rid of mosquito bites quickly. While some research shows that popular natural solutions (like applying a banana peel to your bite when you’re in a pinch) can temporarily reduce swelling and irritation, the following treatments are the most effective ways to get rid of itchy mosquito bites ASAP.
“Rubbing alcohol works really well in reducing itching and that histamine response,” Day says, adding that he always carries individually wrapped alcohol wipes when he’s studying mosquitoes in the field. He explains that rubbing alcohol “denatures” the proteins in the mosquito’s saliva, meaning it clears away the thing that your immune system would normally react to with itching or swelling. “Rubbing alcohol also has a soothing and cooling effect,” he adds.
Applying ice (or anything sufficiently cold) can reduce swelling, and should also provide temporary relief from itching, Day says. Ice won’t remove or neutralize the saliva proteins the mosquito left behind, and so your bite will likely start to itch again as soon as you take away the source of chilly relief. But if you’re in agony and just want a respite, ice is an effective option. Pro tip: A strap-on ice pack is useful if you have a number of bites in a concentrated or hard-to-reach area.
“Calamine lotion can be soothing,” says Lee Townsend, Ph.D., an extension professor of entomology at the University of Kentucky. This pink-hued, OTC topical treatment contains zinc oxide, which has long been known to have anti-itch properties. The downside: Calamine needs to be reapplied several times a day to keep the itch away when treating mosquito bites, but it helps if you have it handy.
Most OTC allergy drugs—including Benadryl, Claritin, and Zyrtec—work in part by turning off your body’s histamine response, hence why they’re called antihistamines. Since it’s this histamine response that causes the mosquito bite-related swelling and itching, these drugs can provide major relief. If you’re dealing with multiple bites and dabbing on calamine isn’t getting the job done—or you’re headed somewhere where having legs slathered in pink goo isn’t an appropriate look—an oral antihistamine is a helpful option.
If you prefer to turn to a natural home remedy, applying pure aloe vera to your mosquito bite could help it heal. “It can help soothe irritated skin, such as from bug bites, because of its anti-inflammatory properties,” Noelani González, M.D., director of cosmetic dermatology at Mount Sinai West in New York recently told Prevention. “It can also help reduce redness in that area.” Just note that it may take a few days for the itch to completely subside—but you’ll reap these aloe vera skin benefits in the process. (Just be sure to test another patch of skin first to ensure that you don’t have an allergic reaction.)
Mix baking soda with a little water—just enough to form a paste. Apply that to your bites, and you should experience itch relief, according to the Mayo Clinic. If you’re dealing with many bites, you could also add a quarter cup of baking soda to a bath to quell the itch and tame inflammation. That’s why baking soda makes an effective sunburn cure, too.
This topical anti-inflammatory agent will keep bite-related heat and swelling down and has also been shown to relieve itching, according to the National Library of Medicine. You don’t need a prescription-strength product. Applying 1% hydrocortisone cream a few times a day should help get rid of your mosquito bite.