July 4, 2008

Taking a SWAT at Bugs

CHICAGO - Do you ever feel like a mosquito magnet?

About 10 percent of the population actually qualifies, according to entomologist Jerry Butler, a professor emeritus at the University of Florida.

These are the people who get covered in bites while their porch partners or biking buddies are left unscathed. Many of them get exaggerated skin reactions to the bugs - hard red welts or hives that can itch for days.

Children are more susceptible to these reactions, which can cause discomfort but generally are not dangerous, said Dr. Anju Peters, an allergy specialist at Chicago's Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Her 7-year-old daughter got several bites and broke out in hives in the family's Chicago home when an outside door was left open, Dr. Peters said.

Some people have allergies to mosquitoes, developing limited but severe skin reactions that researchers call "skeeter syndrome." Some can develop potentially dangerous, widespread reactions including wheezing, and, rarely, life-threatening throat-swelling and breathing problems.

Research is under way to develop skin tests and treatment for these allergies using mosquito saliva. Because tests are not widely available, allergic reactions to mosquitoes are underdiagnosed and undertreated, according to the University of Manitoba's Dr. Estelle Simons, a leading mosquito allergy expert.

Whether true allergies or normal reactions to mosquito saliva, the bumps and itching can sometimes be eased, though not prevented. Using over-the-counter antihistamines such as Zyrtec and Claritin throughout mosquito season or after a bite can help, doctors say.

Sweat and carbon dioxide given off by the skin and from breathing are among the best known mosquito magnets, said Dr. Butler, who has long studied which odors and substances attract mosquitoes.

Mosquitoes often target larger people, who tend to give off more carbon dioxide, he said. Alcohol is another lure, "so people who have been drinking are going to be more attractive" to the bugs, he said.

Alcohol in lotions and perfumes also attracts mosquitoes, as do some cosmetic fragrances including lavender, Dr. Butler said. He said there's evidence that people with very high cholesterol levels often are mosquito magnets. He said mosquitoes need fats such as cholesterol, so they get them by feeding on others.

Originally published by Associated Press.

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