By KATE BAYLESS ~ JULY 15, 2015 ~ prevention.com
You hear a high-pitched buzz in your ear and you know it…a mosquito is in your midst. On any given summer day, countless mosquitoes could be buzzing around your al fresco dinner or early morning jog.
Despite their high annoyance factor, not all mosquitoes are out for blood; only the females are, explains Joseph M. Conlon, a mosquito expert with the American Mosquito Control Association. “Female mosquitoes imbibe blood as a protein source for egg development,” Conlon says.
When the female mosquito “bites” you, she inserts the tip of her mouth into one of your blood vessels, injecting her saliva into your bloodstream. The saliva includes a protein that prevents your blood from clotting as she eats. (Ick.) It’s these proteins, not the bite, that cause the swelling, redness, and itching that some—but not all—of us experience.
Here’s what your specific reaction says about you:
What it looks like: Zip, nada, nothing
What it means: A nonreaction could mean you’re one of the lucky few who aren’t allergic to mosquito saliva, says Andrew Murphy, MD, a fellow at the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. It also could mean you’ve developed an immunity to mosquito bites. “When a person has had repeated exposure to the mosquito allergen, her immune system can stop recognizing the allergen as a problem, and there is no reaction,” Murphy says.
Reaction: Small red bump
What it looks like: Round, white-ish bump, often with a small visible dot at the center; becomes red and firm after 1 or 2 days
What it means: This is the most common reaction to a mosquito bite, says Jorge Parada, MD, medical director of the Infection Control Program at Loyola University Chicago and medical advisor for the National Pest Management Association. “This minor allergic reaction is in response to proteins in the mosquito’s saliva.”
What it looks like: Slightly raised, smooth, flat-topped bumps that are usually more reddish than the surrounding skin
What it means: Some people are more sensitive to the mosquito’s proteins, explains Parada. This sensitivity causes them to react with larger welts instead of the traditional small bump. “However, some studies have found that the reaction is also a function of the mosquito’s feeding time,” says Parada. “The longer the mosquito feeds, the more mosquito proteins are released, thereby increasing the chance of a visible reaction.” A study by 23andMe found there might also be a connection between a person’s genetic makeup and the severity of her reaction.
Reaction: Hives and fever (a.k.a. “skeeter syndrome”)
What it looks like: Welts accompanied by skin swelling, heat, redness, and itching or pain, along with a fever
What it means: You may have “skeeter syndrome,” a more extreme allergic reaction to a mosquito bite. It can lead to excessive swelling of the bite site and the area feeling hot and hard to the touch. Sometimes the bite site can even blister and ooze. While anyone can develop skeeter syndrome (even those with no prior extreme reaction to mosquito bites), Murphy says young children, patients with immune system disorders, and travelers exposed to new types of mosquitoes are at a higher risk.
What it looks like: Hives, lip/tongue swelling, trouble breathing, wheezing, coughing
What it means: While anaphylaxis from mosquito bites is rare, it can be fatal. “Patients with anaphylaxis to mosquitoes will have the typical symptoms of a severe allergic reaction,” Murphy says. He mentions hives, lip or tongue swelling, trouble breathing, wheezing, coughing, and—in severe cases—passing out or death. “Treatment is the use of injectable epinephrine and seeking immediate medical care,” he adds.
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