Summer Safety: How to treat mosquito bites and avoid mosquito-borne illnesses

July 27, 2021

This article was reviewed by our Baystate Health team to ensure medical accuracy.

Robert A. Spence, MD Robert A. Spence, MD View Profile
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Summer has finally arrived, and no doubt many of us will be spending more time outdoors. That's insect territory, and some bugs, including mosquitoes, can cause illnesses.

The good news is that there are simple steps that you can take to protect yourself and your family from mosquito bites and the illnesses they can cause.

How mosquitoes spread through Massachusetts

According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, there are over 3,000 different kinds of mosquitoes worldwide. There are more than 150 different kinds of mosquitoes found in North America, 51 of which are found in Massachusetts.

Mosquitoes are attracted to carbon dioxide, a gas that humans and other animals breathe out. The tiny bugs can follow a stream of carbon dioxide from as far as 50 feet away.

Only female mosquitoes bite to suck blood and use the blood to make eggs.

They need stagnant water to lay their eggs. Many people don't realize the number of areas around their own house where mosquitoes can find the stagnant water they need.

"All of the rain that has pooled in birdbaths and toy buckets during the past week is about to yield a bumper crop of mosquitoes," said Dr. Robert Spence, chief of emergency medicine for Baystate Wing Hospital. “Any temporary body of water that is present for more than a week can be a mosquito breeding habitat. Even flooded tire tracks and footprints in a muddy field have been known to produce dozens of mosquitoes each."

All a female mosquito needs is a bottle cap of water to lay 100 to 200 eggs. Once the eggs are laid, they hatch into larvae within 24 to 48 hours.

Why are mosquito bites so itchy?

Even if you don’t end up getting a mosquito-borne illness, having arms and legs covered in mosquito bites isn’t the best way to spend your summer either.

Many people find mosquito bites itchy. This happens because the mosquito injects you with its saliva while it’s sucking your blood.

People have different degrees of reactions. Red, itchy bumps are a common symptom. The symptoms can last hours or several days, depending on the person.

Some severe symptoms of a mosquito bite include:

  • A large area of swelling and redness
  • Fever
  • Hives
  • Swollen lymph nodes

A very small percentage of the population has Skeeter syndrome, which is a severe allergy to mosquito bites. Symptoms include swelling and fever within a few hours of the bite.

How to treat a mosquito bite

If you scratch the mosquito bite, it can become infected. Infected bites look red and feel warm. You may need to see a doctor if it gets worse. Infected bites can leave a scar once they heal.

If you get an itchy mosquito bite, you should instead:

  • Wash the bite with soap and water
  • Put an ice pack on the spot for ten minutes
  • Put on anti-itch cream

The CDC also has a home remedy (using baking soda and water) you can try.

Mosquitoes can spread disease

"Some mosquitoes carry germs that can make people and some animals sick,” Dr. Spence said. “In Massachusetts, the diseases linked to mosquitoes are West Nile virus (WNV) and eastern equine encephalitis (EEE) virus."

What is West Nile Virus?

West Nile Virus (WNV) is a mosquito-carried virus most commonly spread to people through the bite of an infected mosquito.

It first arrived in the United States back in the early 2000s and is now endemic in our bird, horse and mosquito populations.

About 80% of people who are infected don’t develop symptoms.

The rest may develop a fever with other symptoms, like:

  • A headache
  • Body aches
  • Joint pain
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • A rash

1 in 150 people can develop a neurological condition from WNV, including meningitis (infection of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord) or encephalitis (infection of the brain).

These symptoms can include:

  • High fever
  • Neck stiffness
  • Disorientation
  • Coma
  • Tremors
  • Seizures
  • Paralysis

What is EEE?

Eastern equine encephalitis (EEE) is a virus that can cause a systemic illness or a neurological disease like meningitis or encephalitis.

It is relatively rare in humans, although there are occasional outbreaks in certain regions of the country. Fewer than 100 people have died from EEE in Massachusetts in the past 75 years, according to the Department of Public Health. In the United States, approximately five to ten EEE cases are reported annually.

The risk of getting EEE is highest from late July through September when more mosquitoes are present and active.

“The incubation period for the virus from the time of an infected mosquito bite to onset of illness ranges from four to ten days and the illness can last one to two weeks,” Dr. Spence said.

Some people do not experience any symptoms.

People who develop a systemic illness from EEE may experience:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Feelings of uneasiness
  • Joint pain
  • Muscle pain

People who develop a neurological disease from EEE may experience:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Seizures
  • Behavioral changes
  • Drowsiness
  • Coma

Can you cure mosquito-borne illnesses?

Antibiotics are not effective against viruses.

No effective anti-viral drugs have been discovered for the treatment of EEE. Severe illnesses are treated by supportive therapy, which may include:

  • Hospitalization
  • Respiratory support
  • IV fluids
  • Prevention of other infections

There is no treatment for WNV. While they will have a full recovery, people infected with WNV may feel weak and fatigued for weeks to even months.

“People with mild WNV infections usually recover on their own. People with severe WNV infections almost always require hospitalization,” Dr. Spence said.


Follow The Department of Public Health tips that will help people protect themselves and their loved ones from illnesses caused by mosquitoes:

  1. Be aware of peak mosquito hours. The hours from dusk to dawn are peak biting times for many mosquitoes. Consider rescheduling outdoor activities that occur during evening or early morning.
  2. Clothing can help reduce mosquito bites. Wearing long-sleeves, long pants and socks when outdoors will help keep mosquitoes away from your skin. Mosquitoes can bite through some fabrics, so check this Healthline chart before you go out.
  3. Mosquito-proof your home and drain standing water. Mosquitoes lay their eggs in standing water. They can begin to multiply in any puddle or standing water that lasts for more than four days. If you have a bird bath in your yard, be sure to empty it daily and refill with fresh water.
  4. Remove containers that may hold water in places that are hard to see such as under bushes, porches, decks, or stairs.
  5. Install or repair screens. Keep mosquitoes outside by having tightly-fitting screens on all of your windows and doors.
  6. Apply insect repellent when outdoors. Use a repellent with DEET (N, N-diethyl-m-toluamide), permethrin, picaridin (KBR 3023), oil of lemon eucalyptus [p-methane 3, 8-diol (PMD)] or IR3535 according to the instructions on the product label. DEET products should not be used on babies under two months of age. It should be used in concentrations of 30% or less on older children. Oil of lemon eucalyptus should not be used on children under three years of age.

DEET is toxic to pets. To protect your dog or cat from mosquitoes, look for something pet-safe like citrus juice or naturally mosquito-repelling plants.

Learn more about controlling the mosquito population outside your home and getting rid of mosquitoes inside your home.

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