Here’s What Happens to Your Body When You Get a Bug Bite—and Why You Shouldn’t Scratch It

Bug bites are a drag—yet why does itching them feel so good? Don't worry, we've got some alternatives for managing that annoying bump.

Kelly-Marken/ShutterstockYou can run, but you can’t hide from mosquitoes in summer. This is literally true since mosquitoes love it when you work up a sweat—although it’s not so much the sweat that attracts them as the carbon dioxide you’re exhaling as you exercise. And then there are all the really dangerous bugs out there. The reality is, if it’s summer, you’re bound to attract some insect attention. So why do all these bites end up itching? And how could that oh-so-satisfying scratching be bad? We have answers—including how you can identify these nine common bug bites.

When, for example, a mosquito bites, it pierces your skin with its straw-like mouth, and then the mosquito actually “injects saliva into your skin,” according to Jorge Parada MD, medical advisor to the National Pest Management Association. The mosquito’s saliva contains various proteins that our bodies recognize as intruders. Your immune system goes on high alert, releasing a chemical called “histamine” that helps the body’s immune cells to flow freely toward the site of the bite. This process takes place whether you’ve been bitten or stung.

The whole icky, complicated process is actually a healthy one: If you had a weak immune system, you would have no response, says dermatologist Jennifer T. Haley, MD, and that could leave you open to infection. Healthy as the immune response can be, however, those histamines are what cause your itches. They’re also responsible for the swelling or bump you get where you’ve been bitten, says Dheeraj Taranath, DO, a Regional Medical Director of MedExpress.

“From someone who has a very huge reaction to mosquito bites, it is difficult not to scratch,” says Dr. Haley. Tempting as it may be, resist: Scratching is a terrible idea—all experts agree upon this. First, it stirs up that gross mosquito saliva, which only increases the histamine response. Second, scratching can break the skin, which allows bacteria from both the surface of your skin and from under your fingernails to get in you, and that can lead to a bacterial infection. If you can’t resist the urge, at least try the safer alternative of rubbing the itchy area with the palm of your hand, suggests Dr. Taranath. He also recommends washing any mosquito bite with soap and cold water to wash off bacteria and ease the itch.

If the word histamine sounds familiar, it should: You probably have an antihistamines like Benadryl sitting on your shelf right now. The drug can quell your itch; also consider an anti-inflammatory like ibuprofen or naproxen. Rather not take a pill? Try rubbing ice, aloe vera, or an over-the-counter one-percent hydrocortisone cream on the affected area of the skin. Or try one of these natural remedies for mosquito bites.

If you do end up itching and the spot bleeds, watch for signs of infection; you may need a course of antibiotics, Dr. Taranath says.

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Lauren Cahn is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest, The Huffington Post, and a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers health, fitness, yoga, and lifestyle, among other topics. An author of crime fiction, Lauren's book The Trust Game, was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.