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Best Treatment for Insect Bites? Nothing

Mosquitoes are biting insects

It’s the time of year when you start thinking about swim suits and summer vacations, but it’s also a time when people experience an increase in insect bites. Whether the bites come from mosquitoes, fleas, midges, or flies, it seems that the best treatment for insect bites and the accompanying itching and inflammation may be nothing, or at least no medications.

Don’t scratch that insect bite!

It’s natural: soon after you’ve swatted or slapped at a mosquito or a midge (a tiny biting, often blood-sucking type of fly that causes a burning sensation with its bite), you begin to itch or burn where you’ve been bitten. Multiply those insect bites and soon you’re searching the medicine cabinet or pharmacy shelves to something to stop the discomfort.

But according to a new review in Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin, there’s not much evidence that over-the-counter medications will help stop these symptoms. In fact, “The symptoms are often self limiting and in many cases, no treatment may be needed.”

Naturally, some people do react strongly to insect bites with an eczema flare-up or even anaphylactic shock (a severe allergic reaction characterized by hives, swelling, and breathing problems), and an insect bite can become infected if it is scratched until the skin breaks. These events should be treated accordingly.

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However, the vast majority of insect bites pose no health risk and are simply annoying. The reviewers noted there is no need to turn to the following treatments:

  • Steroid creams or steroid tablets are often recommended for insect bites, even though there’s no evidence they are effective for this purpose. The reviewers also noted that steroid creams should be used sparingly and never applied to broken skin or on the face.
  • Antihistamine tablets also have little evidence to support their use
  • Scant evidence supports the use of antiseptics and astringents to relieve itching or burning, although dilute ammonium solution does have some merit
  • Creams that contain lidocaine, benzocaine, antihistamines, or antiseptics are “marginally effective and occasionally cause sensitization”

Treating insect bites
So how should you treat insect bites? The authors suggested applying a cloth that has been soaked in cold water. You might also apply an ice pack, but leave it on for only about 10 minutes per hour. (Note: the authors of this study did not discuss bites related to lice, ticks, or mites.)

If you really want to try a treatment but don’t want to use medications, there are some natural remedies you may have around the house. For example, rubbing a slice of lemon or lime on bites from bed bugs or mosquitoes may relieve the itch. Some people say soaking in Epson salts and water is beneficial.

If you have an aloe vera plant around the house, break off a piece and rub the gel on the bite. You can also make a paste with baking soda and water and apply it to an insect bite.

As the summer and insect biting seasons approach, you might save yourself some money and time by foregoing the over-the-counter insect bite remedies. It appears that the best treatment for insect bites is, basically, no treatment at all.

Management of simple insect bites: where’s the evidence? Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin 2012 Apr; 50(4): 45-48
Image: Wikimedia Commons