By Robin Roberts
They’re the bane of summer: those blood-thirsty little buggers that buzz around your ears and inject their vile venom into your skin, leaving you scratching until you bleed. If you’re super-sensitive or allergic, they’ll make you miserable. If the pesky pests carry disease, like malaria, West Nile or encephalitis, they’ll make you ill, or worse.
And since there are so many bare limbs to choose from on a hot summer day, the little ladies (yes, only the females do the biting) can afford to be picky, and they are. Research shows some people secrete certain chemicals, like lactic or uric acid, that are mozzie magnets. Blood type 0 also sends them into a frenzy. Like heat-seeking missiles, they can zero in on you from up to 35 meters away by the amount of carbon dioxide you release, and some of us emit more than others based on our metabolic rate. Evidently, the bigger you are the more carbon dioxide you exhale, which is why pregnant women and overweight people are more tempting targets than, say, kids. And booze on your breath? Makes them drunk with desire.
Short of standing next to someone more delicious than you, entomologists say wearing lightweight, light-coloured clothing and a brisk breeze or fan help keep skeeters at bay, as does staying inside at dusk and dawn, when the vicious little vampires are most active. If you opt for a commercial insect repellent, you can’t beat DEET (N,N-Diethyl-3-Methylbenzamide) products containing at least a 15% concentration (avoid using it on kids, as it’s been linked to toxic encephalopathy). Picaridin, a synthetic compound extracted from the same plant that produces black pepper, has been shown to be as effective as DEET but doesn’t have the same smell, sticky feel or skin-irritating effects.
Fortunately, there are many natural alternatives that can help you avoid being an unwitting blood donor to these insidious insects. “Studies have found certain essential oils, especially those containing camphor and geranic acid, to be as effective as DEET, but without the toxic side effects,” says Dr. Pamela Frank, BSc (Hons), ND, clinic director at Forces of Nature Wellness Clinic in Toronto. “Toxic chemicals like DEET can contaminate soil, water and air, while natural products are biodegradable and safer for people and the environment.”
- Citronella — Probably the best-known of the bunch, this lemon-scented oil, similar to lemon grass, is extracted from the South Asian cymbopogon nardus plant and is available in lotions, sprays, wipes, candles and incense (although some research suggests burning anything will help, since mosquitoes abhor smoke).
- Lemon-eucalyptus oil — Tests showed the oil was as effective as low concentrations of DEET, about two hours. Look for a product containing at least 40 % concentration to effectively fend off the bugs (but don’t use on kids younger than three).
- Catnip oil — This member of the mint family may drive cats wild but it apparently drives mosquitoes away. There have been some studies that claim it’s even more effective than DEET. Just don’t slap it directly on your skin; get a diluted blend from a health food store.
- Neem oil — The oil extracted from the leaves and seeds of the Azadirachta indica tree contains sallanin, which mosquitoes hate, and has been used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic medicine. As with catnip, get a solution from a trusted source.
- Garlic — Raw garlic releases a toxic gas called allicin, which gives it its pungent smell, prompting skeeters to hit the highway. After you eat it, it’s emitted from your skin, causing a mild repellent effect. For better results, rub a clove directly onto your skin to repel mosquitoes, vampires, and everyone else…
- Avon Skin-So-Soft — Not exactly natural, but not toxic either, this lovely-smelling lotion has had legions of fans for decades who swear by its repelling properties while softening their skin. The downside is that it only provides protection for about five minutes. So the company developed a real repellent, called Bug Guard, that’s effective for up to eight hours.
Not every repellent is going to work every time, so when the bloodsuckers get you, and they will, try to avoid scratching that itch. It only increases the inflammation and opens up the bite to infection, leading to more pain and itching. (“A patient told me her grandmother said not to scratch bites, slap them,” says Dr. Frank.) Commercial astringents, such as calamine lotion, help, but if you’d rather go au naturel (and not self-flagellate), bite back with some of these home remedies.
- Tea tree or lavender oil — These essential oils act as an anti-inflammatory to reduce swelling, itching and pain. They’re also anti-bacterial and anti-viral, which can ward off infection.
- Vinegar — Particularly cider vinegar, and specifically organic, unpasteurized cider vinegar. The acidity reduces swelling and itching. Put a few drops on a cotton ball and dab directly on the bite.
- Honey — Raw honey’s anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory properties work on a variety of ailments, mosquito bites included. A little dab will do you; just stay out of the path of ants.
- Tea — After you’ve had your cuppa, save the cooled bag and apply to the itch. The tannins are a natural astringent, drawing out fluid and easing the swelling.
- Sodium bicarbonate— Better known as baking soda, this mild alkaline neutralizes your skin’s pH balance, reducing inflammation. Make a paste with a little water and apply directly to the bump. For extra relief, add a drop or two of witch hazel to the paste, which will help draw out fluid from the bite.
- Citrus fruits — The juice or peel of lemons, limes, oranges and grapefruits contain anti-bacterial, anti-microbial properties, but because of their bleaching effects, stay out of the sun when using them to treat your mosquito bites. Nootkatone, a non-toxic compound in grapefruit (and used in citronella candles), has proven a pretty effective repellent as well as treatment.
- Basil — Leave a few leaves out of your pasta sauce, crush them up and rub on the bite. The herb’s camphor and thymol compounds relieve itching. Fresh peppermint, too, cools the itch. If you can’t get your hands on the fresh stuff, buy these herbs in essential oil form.
- Aloe — Great for treating cuts, scrapes and burns, aloe vera also soothes the itching and swelling of mosquito bites. If you don’t have the actual plant from which to squeeze out the gel, get the essential oil.
- Oatmeal — Good for breakfast, good for bites. Oatmeal contains anti-irritant compounds that ease the itch. Make a poultice out of equal parts water and apply directly. If you’re covered in bites, soak in an oatmeal bath containing a cup of oats.
- Cold pack — The most natural of them all, try applying a bag of ice to the site of the bite. The ice reduces swelling and numbs the nerves that cause the itching.