There are a lot of reasons to hate mosquitoes: For starters, the pesky blood-suckers can carry diseases like the West Nile and Zika viruses, dengue fever, and malaria. But even without the threat of serious illness, mosquitoes can make spending time outdoors in the summer a living hell—especially if you’re the type of person who reacts severely to mosquito bites.
You know who we mean: We’ve all got that friend (or maybe you are that friend) whose bug bites become huge and red and swollen, when others get just a tiny bump. As it turns out, there’s a name for that condition—and there are also things you can do about it. Here’s everything you need to know about “skeeter syndrome” and how to keep yourself, or your unlucky friends, safe.
What is skeeter syndrome?
According to the first mention of “skeeter syndrome” in medical literature, the condition is defined as “mosquito bite-induced large local inflammatory reactions accompanied by fever.” In 1999, in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, researchers used this term to describe five cases they’d observed in otherwise healthy children.
Purvi Parikh, MD, an allergist and immunologist with the non-profit Allergy & Asthma Network, explains that skeeter syndrome is an allergic reaction to the proteins in mosquito saliva. “Most people get some type of reaction—a small bump and a little redness–but for some people it’s really extreme,” says Dr. Parikh.
People who experience these reactions tend to develop them within hours—or even minutes—of bites. Because people rarely seek treatment for this condition, it’s unknown how many people suffer from it or why it affects some people more than others. Dr. Parikh also points out that this is different from people who, for various reasons, tend to attract mosquitoes more than others; rather, they simply react more seriously when they do get bitten.
Skeeter syndrome symptoms
Skeeter syndrome is characterized by signs of inflammation, including swelling, heat, redness, and itching or pain. “An allergist can diagnose it with a skin test in the office, but we can usually diagnose it clinically, as well,” says Dr. Parikh. “If someone comes in and their entire arm is swollen and red from a mosquito bite, it can be pretty obvious.”
Some of the cases described in medical literature showcase just how severe these reactions can be—faces can puff up, eyes can swell shut, and entire limbs can become red and swollen. In the most severe cases, mosquito bites can cause bruising and blistering. Some people can also experience a fever or vomiting or difficulty breathing.
“The good news is it’s not as dangerous as allergies to bees and wasps,” says Dr. Parikh. “Those insect allergies can be deadly, and people need to carry EpiPens with them in case they go into anaphylaxis. Fortunately, we haven’t seen any cases of skeeter syndrome that are that severe.”
Skeeter syndrome vs. skin infection
It can be difficult to tell the difference between someone who’s suffering from a skeeter-syndrome reaction and someone who’s developed an infection: Both can cause redness, swelling, and pain, and both can start with a bug bite. But while infections generally happen several days after a bite or injury, skeeter syndrome happens right away.
That doesn’t mean there’s not a connection between the two, however: People with skeeter syndrome are at higher risk for developing infections, says Dr. Parikh, since they are more likely to scratch at their bites and have larger wounds that take longer to heal.
If you do develop a fever after receiving a mosquito bite—or if the bite seems to be getting bigger or more inflamed and doesn’t get better after a few days—see your doctor to rule out an infection.
Skeeter syndrome treatment
If a bad reaction to mosquitoes is affecting your ability to enjoy the great outdoors, the best way to remedy that is to prevent bites in the first place, says Dr. Parikh. “If you know you’re predisposed to this, it’s important to carry bug spray with you or wear clothing that covers your skin when you know you’re going to be in a mosquito-infested area,” she says.
But there are also things you can do to feel better faster if you do get bitten. An oral antihistamine, like Benadryl, can reduce itching and swelling, and an over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream can provide some relief when rubbed directly on the bite.
“Applying ice or a cold compress can help too, because sometimes the bites get really red and hot and angry-looking,” says Dr. Parikh. For the most extreme cases, she adds, there may be a more permanent solution: “Here in our practice, we do have one or two patients that get it so badly that they’re getting desensitized through allergy shots, the same way they would for dust or mold,” she says.
Allergy shots may be a bigger-than-necessary commitment for most people, however—especially because skeeter syndrome isn’t life-threatening and mosquitoes usually aren’t a year-round problem. “It’s easier to avoid bites in the first place with careful planning,” Dr. Parikh says, “and to carry medications with you that can help provide some relief.”