With summer rapidly approaching, so are the mosquitos.
Public health measures had all but eradicated mosquito-borne infections ¾ like malaria and yellow fever ¾ in industrialized countries a century ago. (Although malaria remains a serious problem in many parts of the world.)
But simple organisms ¾ like viruses ¾ still find a way to hitch a ride on some species of mosquitos. So now ¾ we worry about a new crop of mosquito-borne viruses like West Nile and Zika. In a moment, I’ll tell you about three tips ways to help protect against mosquito bites this summer. But first, let’s back up.
Mosquitos mount highly adapted attack
There are more than 3,000 different species of mosquitos. But only about 200 bite people. And only female mosquitos “bite” before they lay eggs. Plus, it’s not really a bite. Females insert their proboscis ¾ a needle-like tube ¾ through the skin into your tiny blood vessels. Next, they inject a small amount of hirudine ¾ an anti-coagulant protein ¾ into the skin to prevent your blood from clotting inside their tiny needles. Then, the female draws blood for nourishment.
Hirudine is related to the well-known blood thinner heparin, commonly used to prevent blood clots in patients. However, your immune system recognizes the mosquitos’ hirudine as foreign, causing the typical immune response of irritation, inflammation, redness, swelling, and itchiness. Plus, when mosquitos inject a little hirudine, parasites and viruses that cause infections “hitch a ride” into the bloodstream.
As the weather gets warmer, females bite before laying eggs in “rafts” that float on top of lakes, ponds, puddles, or any collection of standing water in your own yard, deck or patio. (They also like the humidity found in damp environments and wetlands.) After the eggs hatch, the cycle starts all over again.
Female mosquitos also have several highly evolved mechanisms that help them zero in on you. For one, they can detect carbon dioxide from up to 50 yards away. Of course, people breathe out carbon dioxide gas (while plants absorb it), so mosquitos detect the higher levels in the air around you. You may wonder why some people seem to get bit more often. That’s because exercising, drinking alcohol and increasing your metabolism lead to a higher output of carbon dioxide, attracting more mosquitos. Metabolizing cholesterol more quickly also increases carbon dioxide output. (Which means extra mosquito bites might be yet another unpleasant side effect of statin drugs.)
Body odors, which ooze out from your skin, also attract mosquitoes. In fact, lactic acid and uric acid in body odor from sweat are favorite scents. Bacteria on the skin also produce mosquito-attracting factors. On the other hand, scientists have found some evidence that certain people are genetically resistant to mosquito bites and produce scents that drive the pests away.
We know genetic factors prevent malaria parasites from infecting blood cells after being bitten by a mosquito. Populations in Africa and the Mediterranean ¾ where mosquito-borne infections have long been endemic ¾ more commonly possess these preventative genetic factors. But these malaria-preventing genes also have side effects ¾ such as sickle cell disease and other forms of anemia.
Here are some tips to help avoid being bitten in the first place…
1. Wear less
You might think that walking around scantily-clad and exposing more skin is an open invitation to mosquitos. But wearing more clothing outdoors can make you more susceptible to attracting mosquitos. Plus, wearing darker and deeper colors ¾ like black, blue or red ¾ tend to attract mosquitos more than does bare skin. Clothing also contributes to sweating and accumulating more sweat, which also attracts mosquitos.
2. Choose your seat wisely
Mosquitos hang out on the leaves of plants and blades of grass. Plus, when it rains, water drops in the air drive mosquitos under plants. They come out and ambush their victims as soon as the rain stops, while seeking rain puddles to lay their eggs. They can also crawl up directly onto your feet ankle and legs. Of course, they’re also more active at dawn and dusk.
3. Plant wisely
Several plants repeal mosquitos, as a natural adaption to avoid insect infestations. All these plants make effective natural, non-toxic insect repellants. For example, citronella, eucalyptus, lemon, lemongrass, and peppermint all repel mosquitos. So ¾ consider planting some around your patio. You can also apply their essential oils directly onto your clothing and skin. Natural insect repellants containing picardin, in lotions or sprays are also available.
If you do get bitten, several natural remedies can help. Immediately apply some apple cider vinegar or tea tree oil directly onto the bite. It will help counter itching, redness and swelling. Essential oils ¾ such as eucalyptus, lavender and peppermint ¾ can also help with itchiness. In addition, you can place a tea bag, honey or baking soda compress on larger bites for relief. If you have too many bites to count, try taking an oatmeal bath.
Whatever you do, don’t let these pests make you afraid to go out into Nature this summer, which has many benefits for both mind and body.
I will tell you about more recent findings about the importance of access to Nature for your health next time.