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A small, red dot accompanied by a bit of itchiness are symptoms most people experience after a pesky mosquito feasts on their blood. Some people hardly notice any reaction at all.
However, for others, mosquito bites can escalate from a mere annoyance to a severe allergic reaction known as skeeter syndrome.
Those most at risk for a severe reaction include people with immunodeficiency, young children and people visiting areas with indigenous mosquitoes that they haven’t been previously exposed to, according to medical researchers from Canada’s University of Manitoba.
“When they bite you, not only are they piercing the skin, but they inject their saliva,” said Dr. Karen McKenzie, director of entomology at DynaTrap, a company that produces mosquito and other flying insect repellent devices without zapping or chemicals.
The saliva helps lubricate the mosquito’s stylet, or its mouthparts, so it’s easier to get into your skin, McKenzie said. The saliva then carries proteins into the body. Skeeter syndrome is the result of the allergic reaction to proteins in mosquito saliva, according to the Mayo Clinic.
“If people are allergic or sensitive, they get a large reaction, the body starts sending histamine and the body starts swelling in that area,” said McKenzie, whose own daughter’s skin reacts to mosquito bites with small bumps all over.
When a person’s skin develops large welts and a significant amount of itchiness, it’s more likely that the person is allergic to mosquito bites, she added.
There isn’t a simple blood test that detects mosquito antibodies in the blood, according to the Mayo Clinic. Instead, mosquito allergies are diagnosed by figuring out if the large, itchy, red and irritated areas of swelling occurred after being bitten by a mosquito.
Stronger reactions of skeeter syndrome are much more common in children, and younger kids are more susceptible to severe reactions than older kids, according to Jorge Parada, MD, MPH, professor of medicine at Loyola University Chicago and medical advisor for the National Pest Management Association.
“Even people who have bad reactions as young kids tend to have them less severely when they're older,” Parada said. “I’ve noticed that with my son, who frequently used to get a 4-inch welt after a mosquito bite, [now only gets welts that are about 2 inches].”
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Parada added that severe reactions to bites don’t normally become life-threatening. However, some people can experience a rare, potentially deadly condition called anaphylaxis that triggers wheezing and throat swelling, said McKenzie.
“If you start getting itchiness in your throat, eyes, have any kind of trouble breathing or have an immediate reaction like huge swelling at a bite site with any of those other factors, get to the emergency room, as it can escalate quickly,” said McKenzie, whose friend once required a trip to the ER following a mosquito bite.
Taking precautions against mosquito bites
If bitten, applying calamine lotion or other non-prescription hydrocortisone creams can reduce itching and swelling, Parada said. Oral antihistamines can also help those who experience stronger reactions to bites.
McKenzie advised that people aware of a mosquito bite allergy carry an EpiPen with them, especially if living in mosquito hot spots like Florida.
Experts also advised wearing Environmental Protection Agency-approved repellents like picaridin and DEET. Higher concentrations of DEET shouldn’t be used on small children, according to Parada.
Wearing long sleeves, long pants and light colors are advised when outdoors in mosquito-prone areas. Checking your home for standing water can also prevent mosquitoes from lingering around your yard.
“You can buy pre-treated clothing that has insect repellent,” said Parada, who recommended this option because the repellent is typically effective through about 30 washes.
For more safety and preparedness tips, visit AccuWeather.com/Ready.
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