Going on holiday and not sure how to avoid those nasty biting insects that can ruin your holiday? Check out our travel advice section compiled by the experts at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine - don't leave home before you've read it.
Why do I get bitten? How do mosquitoes find me?
Mosquitoes are very advanced little insects, with the ability to detect their prey using a variety of methods. It's only the females that bite, but both sexes can detect you using any of the following means:
Biting insects can sense the carbon dioxide and lactic acid vapour trails given off by our skin using their antennas. They use these vapour trails like road maps to guide them to their target, where they know dinner is waiting! Certain chemicals and scents also seem to attract biting insects - if you sweat heavily or wear floral scents you are more likely to get bitten.
As the biting insect is guided by the carbon dioxide and lactic acid trails, their sight allows them to home in on us - the more you contrast with the background and the more we move around, the easier it is for the biting insect to single you out.
Once the biting insect lands on its target, the fine tuning to find the best feeding spot is done with heat sensors. The biting insect will use these sensors to locate the blood supply (veins) that are closest to our skin surface. That is why we are bitten more on our wrists and ankles where the skin is thinner. In case you were wondering, ladies are more likey to get bitten because their skin is often slightly thinner and therefore provide a more accessible blood supply than men.
Why does my partner not get bitten but I do?
Most people know someone who says "well I never get bitten" or "mosquitoes never leave me alone" - so why is this?
To be honest, it isn't entirely understood at the moment - though there has been a lot of research into the subject. The likelihood is that as the mosquitoes have extremely sensitive and advanced chemical sensors, they can detect minute differences between different people that we cannot.
Different components of sweat could potentially attract or repel mosquitoes – and sweat is often heavily affected by what we eat or drink. Equally, those who wear a lot of bright colours tend to attract more bites. Unfit and overweight people tend to sweat more heavily – and also produce greater levels of CO2 - which tends to lead to a greater number of bites.
Women tend to get bitten more than men - sorry ladies. Women's breath contains fractionally higher concentrations of CO2, they tend to be very slightly warmer, and the skin at wrists and ankles is slightly thinner. All three factors increase their visibility to mosquitoes, often making them the first target.
Why do I react so badly to getting bitten - I never used to?
When the mosquito bites her victim, she injects her saliva - teeming with digestive enzymes and anticoagulants. The first time a person is bitten, there is no reaction. With subsequent bites, the person becomes sensitised to the foreign proteins, and small, itchy, red bumps appear about 24 hours later. This is the most common reaction in young children. After many more bites, a pale, swollen hive, or wheal, begins to appear within minutes after a bite - followed by the red bump 24 hours later. This is the most common reaction in older children and adolescents.
With repeated mosquito bites, some people begin to become insensitive again, much as if they had allergy shots. Some older children and adults get no reaction to mosquito bites (unless they go for a long time without being bitten - then the process can start again). An increasing number of people become increasingly allergic with repeated stings. They can develop blistering, bruised, large inflammatory reactions. For these people, avoiding being bitten is a particularly good idea.
So what can I do to stop myself being bitten?
Unless every inch of your skin is covered by thick clothing it isn't actually possible to completely stop yourself getting bitten. The trick is to make yourself as unappealing to mosquitoes as possible. There are a number of different products to buy as well a natural remedies and some rumours as to what will help so we've gathered them all together here – some will work better for you than others so it's worth trying several methods.
Scents: avoid wearing floral scented perfumes or washing with scented soaps. Be clean though - mosquitoes are attracted to components of sweat so the cleaner you are the better. The bacteria found on sweaty feet particularly will also attract them so keep yours clean and dry if possible.
Thiamine (Vitamin B12): Some studies have shown that increasing your consumption of Thiamine will decrease your chances of being bitten as it adds a component to sweat which mosquitoes dislike. It will take around 2 weeks to appear in sweat from when you start taking it (It is completely undetectable to humans!)
Garlic – the same theory as with Thaimine. This, however, tends to be rather more detectable to other humans.
Cinnamon – there is no worthwhile evidence that cinnamon repels mosquitoes, but if you happen to like it then it can't hurt.
Beer – rather unfortunately a study in Japan has found that drinking beer increases your chance of getting bitten for the following 24 hours or so. Can be worth considering whether you'd rather be bitten or sober!
Hang around with other people who get bitten a lot! In general, mosquitoes tend to bite children over adults and women over men. So if all else fails, hang around with people more attractive to mosquitoes than you!
There are a number of mosquito repellents available on the market today – and these can be broadly split into 3 categories – citronella based, DEET based, or electronic. All work by interfering with the chemical sensors of the mosquitoes and confusing or driving them away.
Citronella is a natural plant extract which contains a chemical which repels mosquitoes. When applied to skin, this chemical is very effective at repelling mosquitoes. Unfortunately as the active agent is only effective when in vapour form, and it vapourises very quickly, then a normal insect spray or cream is only useful for around 15-30 minutes following application. Citronella candles send the volatile active agent high in the air and generally provide practically no protection. Citronella also contains large amounts of Limonene and Linalool which can cause allergic reactions in children; so be careful when initially using a citronella based repellent.
DEET (N, N-diethyl meta-toluamide.) This highly aggressive chemical is used in many places in the world and is very effective at repelling mosquitoes. It can be purchased in various strengths, including a 10% paediatric formula. The active agent in DEET is not as volatile as that found in citronella but still only provides an hour protection at most. DEET is a highly toxic chemical and should not be applied to man-made fibres as it destroys them. It is also a systemic toxin and should never be used with young children. You should avoid getting any DEET near the face, or on anything that may rub the face. You should also limit the amount of DEET used as the toxin is absorbed through the skin and can cause unpleasant effects in larger concentrations.
Electronic Devices. Mosi-magnets and similar devices meet with very mixed reaction when tested. Some people swear by them and others think they're utterly useless. The trap variety work by providing strong attractants to the mosquito encouraging them to visit. They are several hundred pounds to buy, and independent testing has been very inconclusive as to how effective they are at stopping you actually getting bitten.
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