Yes, That Mosquito Really is After You
If you spend most of your summer days fending off mosquitoes, while most everyone around you seems to be immune, you may think the little pests have it in for you. According to scientists, you may be right, though the reason why is largely still a mystery.
"There's an incredible amount of research going on, as we speak, to try and determine why," Joe Conlon, technical adviser to the American Mosquito Control Association (AMCA), tells ParentDish, "but there really is no solid evidence."
What the experts do know is that there are over 2,500 different species of mosquitoes in the world, with about 200 of them occurring in the United States -- 77 of which call Florida home. And each species is attracted to different things, breed in different areas and have different feeding proclivities.
Contrary to popular belief, mosquitoes don't use blood from humans or animals as a food source; they feed off of plant nectars. The females are the only ones that bite, and they do so to provide protein for egg production. But that still doesn't explain why the females choose their targets selectively.
Conlon says researchers have discovered that mosquitoes are attracted to certain chemicals output by the human body, such as carbon dioxide and lactic acid. Carbon dioxide is produced when we exhale; lactic acid is present on the skin, especially when we perspire or exercise, according to AOL Health.
However, since everyone's body produces these chemicals, it is still unclear why some people are more attractive to the insects than others. And since there are more than 400 chemicals and odors exuded by our bodies, this may just be the tip of the iceberg. And since studies have only involved 10 or so species thus far, it's been pretty difficult for researchers to come up with hard and fast rules.
There are, however, certain body types and behaviors that mosquitoes do seem to like or dislike more than others.
According to Conlon:
• Adults are more desirable than children, but less so as they age
• Larger people are more attractant -- possibly because they produce more carbon dioxide, body heat and body odors
• Men attract more than women -- which may be size-related
• People who consume alcohol have been shown by some studies to be differentially more attractant -- perhaps because they perspire more, so produce increased lactic acid and body odors
• Perfumes and scented body washes may also make you more of a target -- possibly because mosquitoes feed on plant nectars, so are attracted to flower scents
• People who are anhydrous -- frequently thirsty, low on water intake -- tend to be less attractant
But Conlon explains it's likely the combination of a number of chemicals and/or odors that actually account for a mosquito's selection, and there may even be a genetic component -- judging from studies on identical twins performed some years ago.
On the flip side, studies have also pointed to the existence of substances produced by humans that actually repel mosquitoes. James Logan, a researcher at the Rothamsted agricultural research institution in the U.K., reported in 2005 that some people's bodies produce compounds that either naturally repel mosquitoes or act as "masking" odors that prevent mosquitoes from finding them. In a news release, Logan reported that research in this area could one day yield new methods of protection from these biting pests.
In the meantime, Conlon offers the "5 D's" of mosquito protection:
1 and 2 - DUSK and DAWN are the most active times for troublesome mosquitoes, so avoid being outside an hour before and after each whenever possible.
3 - DRAIN standing water on your property, as that's where mosquitoes like to breed. That includes birdbaths, but don't worry about treated swimming pools because the chlorine takes care of them.
4 - DRESS properly -- wear light-colored, loose clothing and long sleeves and pants if possible. Mosquitoes can bite through tight clothing.
5 - DEFEND yourself with a mosquito repellent approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The gold standard in synthetic insect repellants is DEET, and it can be used on children over two months of age, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). The CDC reports that a product containing 23.8 percent DEET will provide about 5 hours of protection, and lower concentrations last for shorter duration.
Products containing picaridin, a synthetic derivative of the pepper plant, are also recommended by the AAP, but only for children over 6 months of age and in concentrations of 5 to 10 percent.
If you prefer natural products, the CDC recommends oil of lemon eucalyptus, a plant-based repellent that's been shown to offer protection similar to repellents with low concentrations of DEET. However, the agency cautions not to use it on children under 3 years of age. Regardless of which repellent you choose, be sure to heed all instructions, and remember to reapply after swimming and according to directions.
If you take all the necessary precautions yet still get bitten, be sure not to scratch, as Conlon says most problems caused by mosquito bites are from secondary infections that develop. He adds that life-threatening anaphylactic reactions are rarely seen as they are with bees, and recommends calming the itch with a product containing calamine lotion or an anti-histamine spray like benadryl, though lemon, toothpaste and other products commonly found around the home can also be used to relieve the bite, according to AOL Health.
Just be sure to see your physician if you experience any flu-like symptoms after a mosquito bite, so she can be sure you haven't contracted West Nile virus or any other mosquito-spread disease.
Related: Not Your Ordinary Summer: Taking A Family Adventure Vacation
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