A bloodsucking bug will likely make a snack out of you before summer’s over. And when the itchiness just won’t quit, finding immediate mosquito bite relief is probably all you can think about. (Especially if it’s on your ankle—the worst place to endure the pain of an insect bite, in our humble opinion.)
A quick recap on why they’re so itchy: As female mosquitoes feed on your blood, they inject saliva into your skin, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Your body registers this saliva as an allergen,” Cindy Wassef, MD, an assistant professor of dermatology at the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey, tells SELF.
The mosquito saliva prompts your body to release histamines and certain enzymes that rile up the immune system and trigger inflammation, Ife J. Rodney, MD, founding director of Eternal Dermatology Aesthetics and professor of dermatology at Howard University and George Washington University, tells SELF. Cue the incessant itching.
Of course, not everyone responds in the same way. The degree of your mosquito bite symptoms—like swelling, redness and other discoloration, and itchiness—depends on your immune response, Dr. Rodney says. Some people find them slightly annoying, while others may think they’re torturous.
So what can you do to treat a mosquito bite quickly? It may take a little trial and error to find a helpful solution for you, but dermatologists say there are remedies that can help. Along with being patient, here are a few different things you can try to make the itching stop.
1. Seriously, stop the itch-scratch cycle.
It’s really tough to resist scratching an itchy mosquito bite, but doctors say it’s the most important step to take in order to help the spot heal. “Scratching a mosquito bite can make it itchier,” Dr. Rodney says. “Scratching can further irritate the skin, which prompts the body to release more histamines, causing more itchiness.”1
Scratching can also damage the skin and create microscopic (or even visible) openings for harmful bacteria or other pathogens—say, the kind that may be living under your nails—to enter your body, which ups your risk of infection.2
Dr. Rodeny recommends either putting a bandage over your bite or wearing clothes like long pants or sleeves over top (if you have multiple mosquito bites) to lower the odds that you’ll pick at your skin directly.
2. Soothe it with a cold compress.
A hallmark of mosquito bites is inflammation—which can manifest as redness or other discoloration, swelling, and even a bit of tenderness—and a cold compress can help tamp that down, Dr. Rodney says. It works by constricting the blood vessels, which makes it harder for those inflammatory chemicals to wreak havoc.
She recommends running a clean cloth under cool water, wringing it out, and applying it to the bite site for a few minutes. If you’re really struggling, Dr. Wassef suggests tossing the damp cloth in the freezer for an hour or so for a colder effect.
If that’s not enough, try actual ice. The Mayo Clinic recommends straight-up rubbing an ice cube over the bite for 30 seconds to soothe the area. It will only feel better temporarily, but some immediate relief (if short-lived) is still nice when all you can think about is scratching the hell out of your skin.
3. Slather on an anti-itch cream.
There should be plenty of over-the-counter itch-relief cream options at your local drugstore. You can try an antihistamine cream that contains diphenhydramine (like Benadryl), which tackles that itchy feeling head-on, or you can reach for a topical hydrocortisone cream (like Cortisone-10), which helps to reduce inflammation and irritation, Dr. Wassef says.
Calamine lotion, which is made of zinc and iron oxide, may soothe your skin, too, thanks to the anti-inflammatory properties of zinc oxide.3 Pramoxine hydrochloride and cooling menthol are two other ingredients you can find in OTC products (like this Cerave Itch Relief Moisturizing Cream) that can minimize that must-scratch feeling.
4. Make a DIY paste to calm the skin.
Can’t trek to the store? The Mayo Clinic suggests this mosquito bite home remedy: a homemade paste made of baking soda. Baking soda has anti-inflammatory properties, Dr. Rodney points out. Just add a few drops of water to some baking soda until you get a creamy consistency. Then, dab it on the bite and leave it there. You can reapply the paste three times a day until you feel better.
5. Take an oral antihistamine.
If topical medications aren’t doing it for you, popping an oral antihistamine can help fight the release of histamine that happens as your body responds to the mosquito’s saliva, Dr. Wassef says. Look for daytime options to avoid drowsiness, like loratadine (Claritin), cetirizine (Zyrtec), or levocetirizine (Xyzal).4
Take the medication on an as-needed basis, per the directions on the label, Dr. Wassef says. “Once the itching resolves, you can stop using it,” she says.
Are there any other mosquito bite home remedies worth trying…or are they all BS?
Popular bug bite home remedies are not as magical as you may have been led to believe (sorry!). Here’s what you need to know:
Technically it’s not scratching, but trying to squeeze the itch out of a mosquito bite also isn’t a great idea, as it “can cause further irritation and the release of more histamines, making the itchiness worse,” Dr. Rodney says. “It is best to avoid squeezing or scratching mosquito bites.” Squeezing the area of the bite isn’t going to remove the mosquito saliva from your skin, despite what you may have read online, Dr. Wassef says.
This home remedy comes up a lot, but Dr. Rodney says it’s an “ineffective” hack. “Some toothpastes may provide a cooling sensation, but it does not contain any active ingredients that can reduce itchiness, inflammation, or histamine release,” she says. Meaning, you may feel better briefly, but toothpaste won’t have a lasting effect on your mosquito bites. “There’s also a chance of causing an unwanted reaction due to possible allergens in the toothpaste itself,” Dr. Rodney says.
Vinegar—especially apple cider vinegar—is commonly touted for taking the itch out of bug bites, but the doctors we spoke with say it could cause more trouble than it’s worth. “Vinegar is quite acidic and can cause irritation to the skin,” Dr. Wassef says, adding that it can also cause “skin breaks” (a.k.a. microscopic damage), which can open you up to a potential infection. While it may give you a cooling sensation, vinegar doesn’t contain any active ingredients that can reduce inflammation or the release of histamine, Dr. Rodney says, so it’s not a legit mosquito bite treatment.
When to see a doctor for a mosquito bite
As you’ve probably experienced since you were a kid, your mosquito bite will likely heal on its own over the course of a few days—but sometimes these spots can get infected or cause a significant reaction that requires more than home treatment.
If the bite reaction keeps getting bigger instead of shrinking, is warm to the touch, and actually becomes painful (not just itchy), these are signs the area could be infected, Dr. Wassef says. Ditto if the bite is oozing pus or draining liquid, or if you develop a fever or other flu-like symptoms, Dr. Rodney adds. “If you experience any of these symptoms, you should see a doctor,” she says. If your bite is, in fact, infected, you may need a course of antibiotics to help you feel better.
If you end up with hives (a large rash that spreads across your body) or significant swelling in addition to the bite, you may be experiencing an allergic reaction to the mosquito bite (a.k.a. skeeter syndrome). If this lasts for more than a day, call your doctor, who can advise you on the next best steps.
Thankfully, those types of reactions are pretty rare. Usually, even if you do nothing, your mosquito bite will stop itching eventually. But it can’t hurt to baby your skin in the meantime to make the waiting game a little more bearable.
- International Journal of Molecular Sciences, Pharmacotherapy of Itch—Antihistamines and Histamine Receptors as G Protein-Coupled Receptors
- Merck Manual, Itching
- Dermatology Research and Practice, Zinc Therapy in Dermatology: A Review
- StatPearls [Internet], Antihistamines