Nearly everyone has experienced a bug bite at one point. And though bug bites tend to be pretty small, they can be itchy, pesky, and sometimes even painful. Thankfully, we all know how to avoid bug bites (wear bug spray!). But what about once you have a bug bite? Is there anything you can do to get it to stop itching? We talked to a few experts to find out.
Why Do Bug Bites Itch?
Bug bites can range from unpleasant to painful. But most of the time when you're dealing with an itchy bug bite, you're dealing with a mosquito bite.
When a mosquito bites you, it doesn't just suck out some of your blood—it actually releases some of its saliva into your skin. (Fleas and ticks do the same. Spiders inject a combination of saliva and venom into your skin when they bite you.)
This mosquito saliva is a foreign substance, and your immune system knows that, so it releases histamine—a chemical that makes your capillaries more permeable. This makes it easier for your white blood cells (your immune system cells) to make their way to the site of the bug bite, so they can "fight off" the saliva or venom. Unfortunately, this triggers an inflammatory response—causing the location of your bite to swell and itch.
So now you know why bug bites swell, itch, and turn red. But why do they remain swollen, red, and itchy for days? Simply put: "The histamine released by the white blood cells in our body takes time to clear up," says Sunitha Posina, MD, a New York City–based board-certified internist.
In other words, it takes a few days for your body to recover from the bug bite—and from fighting off the foreign substance. And since scratching can cause the area to become more inflamed, it may take even longer for your bug bites to clear up if you're touching the area a lot.
How to Stop Bug Bites From Itching
Knowing all that, what can you do to make the reaction less intense once you get a bug bite? Thankfully, there are a few steps you can take to cut down on inflammation—and make your bug bites a little less itchy.
As soon as you notice a bug has bitten you, wipe down the area with some rubbing alcohol. This can help clean up some of the bug's saliva before it triggers your immune response, helping you cut down on swelling and itching. "Rubbing alcohol can be effective [as] it helps destroy the proteins that were released from the bug's saliva," Dr. Posina says. As a result, it can decrease some of the swelling, redness, and inflammation that accompanies your post-bug-bite immune response.
And rubbing alcohol may be useful for another reason, too. "It creates a cooling sensation as it evaporates that distracts from the sensation of itch," says Dina Strachan, MD, a New York City–based dermatologist. So even if you catch a bug bite way after a bug has bitten you, rubbing alcohol may still offer your skin some relief.
Hydrocortisone is a corticosteroid—that just means it's a steroid hormone that's used to reduce inflammation. Since acute inflammation is most of what you're dealing with when you have a bug bite, hydrocortisone may alleviate some of the redness, swelling, and itching you're experiencing.
"Hydrocortisone is a type of corticosteroid that mimics [cortisol], the natural steroid in our body," Dr. Posina says. "It fights by preventing the infection-fighting white blood cells—thus decreasing the inflammatory response and calming the inflammation down."
The nice thing about hydrocortisone, which sounds fancy and hard to find, is that it's actually available at most drugstores. So it shouldn't be too hard to get hold of an over-the-counter (OTC) cream with hydrocortisone in it.
Antihistamines are medications that aid in relieving allergy symptoms by blocking the effects of histamine, the chemical your body releases during an immune response.
As you'll remember from earlier, your body also releases histamine when you get a bug bite—and that's the chemical that causes your skin to swell, itch, and turn red. Because antihistamines block the effects of histamines, they can cut down on some of these familiar bug-bite-related symptoms. "Treat bug bites as you might treat any other allergy," Dr. Strachan says. "If you know you'll get bitten, take an antihistamine to reduce the reaction."
Dr. Strachan adds that antihistamines are better at preventing inflammation than they are at treating the itchiness and swelling after the damage is already done. With antihistamines, your goal should be to take one as early as possible once you know you've been bitten (if not even before then, for example, if you're going on a long hike in a buggy locale).
OTC antihistamines are widely available at your local drugstore.
Note: Always talk to your doctor before taking any OTC antihistamine. These drugs may cause negative side effects when paired with certain medications or cause drowsiness. Call your primary care provider and get the go-ahead before taking one.
Since part of what you're experiencing with a bug bite is inflammation, anti-inflammatory medications may be a useful way to reduce some of your symptoms. These medications include options like acetaminophen (also known as Tylenol) and ibuprofen (also known as Advil or Motrin). These are pretty easy to find at any drugstore.
The only downside is that OTC anti-inflammatories might be better at treating pain than they are at treating itching, says Susan Bard, MD, a Brooklyn-based dermatologist at Vive Dermatology. Still, they may be worth a try—especially if you already have one in your cabinet.
Note: Some OTC anti-inflammatories don't pair well with other medications—and definitely don't pair well with alcohol. Talk to your doctor before taking one. Or—at the very least—read and follow the directions on the bottle.
Ice is a popular way to soothe your skin—whether you're dealing with pain, itching, or general inflammation. So if you're looking for a quick, free, and easy way to get a little direct relief, try soothing your skin with an ice pack or a cold compress.
"Icing or cooling numbs the skin," Dr. Posina says. "That temporarily gives relief for itching and discomfort." Bonus: It may help you cut down on scratching, which can actually make your inflammation situation worse. If you can find a way to curb your urge to scratch, that is definitely a good thing.
Much like ice, cooling creams can be a great way to soothe your bug bites. Look for OTC options that contain menthol or camphor, natural ingredients that can make the skin feel cool or numb. Again, these cooling creams won't technically cure a bug bite, but they may offer you temporary relief from post-bite symptoms. And since you can score them at most drugstores, they should make an easy addition to your routine.
Note: Some topical creams containing menthol and camphor can irritate the skin, so read and follow the directions carefully. And talk to your primary care provider if you notice your skin becoming irritated.
When you're dealing with itchy bug bites, it can be tempting to numb the area using a local anesthetic, like a numbing cream. You can typically apply these creams directly to bug bites—as long as the wound is closed and not open or bleeding.
There are many OTC numbing creams available at drugstores, so they're not particularly hard to find. And many of these creams draw on natural ingredients—like arnica, camphor, or menthol—to soothe or numb the skin. However, some of these creams get their numbing power from NSAIDs, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. NSAIDs can be an effective way to reduce pain and inflammation, but they do come with side effects, and it is possible to overdose on them.
If you decide to use an NSAID-based numbing cream, call your doctor to confirm that's the right route for you. They can help you navigate any side effects you experience and avoid an NSAID overdose.
Note: Stick to one NSAID at a time. NSAIDs are also found in OTC painkillers—like aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen—so be sure not to accidentally double up on them or take them in combination with each other.
Do Everything You Can to Stop Scratching
There is nothing so strong as the urge to scratch an itchy bug bite—but try as hard as you can to resist. Though it feels so satisfying in the moment, scratching can actually make your bug bites even more inflamed, which in turn may make them itch even more, says Dr. Bard.
"The more you scratch, the more [your immune system] release[s] histamine," Dr. Bard explains. "This is a vicious cycle that can self-propagate for days." Curb your scratching habit as much as you can. If you have to, wear gloves to cover your nails, put a bandage over the bite, or simply be disciplined about noticing and stopping yourself anytime you reach for that itchy spot.
If All Else Fails, See a Doctor
Itchy mosquito bites are rarely a cause for serious medical concern—but some bug bites are worth calling for backup. If you really can't get your bug bites to stop itching, you may want to stop by the doctor's office. "If the itch is intolerable, a doctor can help," Dr. Strachen says. If your bug bites seem like they're getting worse—if they're becoming increasingly red, swollen, warm, or painful—you may want to call your primary care provider. Some other symptoms to look out for include: pus, discharge, fever, chills, or swollen lymph nodes. According to Dr. Posina, these may be signs that you're experiencing something more serious—like cellulitis (a bacterial infection) or lymphangitis (a lymphatic system infection).