Can I develop immunity to mosquito bites?
June 21, 2006 2:53 PM   Subscribe

Can you build immunity to mosquito bites?

My theory is, if I let mosquitos bite me (ie, use no repellant, don't kill them) early in mosquito season and don't scratch, I develop an immunity which seems to last most of the summer. So far, it seems to work, but someone's finally called me on it. Am I making it up, or is there any kind of evidence for this?
posted by paul_smatatoes to Health & Fitness (30 answers total)
Immunity to getting bitten or immunity to being annoyed by the bites?
posted by desuetude at 2:59 PM on June 21, 2006

Response by poster: the annoying part...I don't mind getting bitten if I don't itch.
posted by paul_smatatoes at 3:02 PM on June 21, 2006

The itchiness and swelling is a histamine reaction, which could be thought of as excessive (rather than insufficient) immunity. It's plausible that after repeated bites, your body learns not to react. If so, the end result is what you desire but the mechanism involved is the opposite of what you think.
posted by randomstriker at 3:05 PM on June 21, 2006

BTW, I find that an anti-histamine pill offers the quickest relief from the itch.
posted by randomstriker at 3:08 PM on June 21, 2006

My only evidence is experiential; I spent a while in asia in the company of lots of mossies (unlike my native UK). At first I used a nasty deet-based bug spray, but quickly got fed up and decided to develop an immunity. Seemed to work for me after a few weeks, and I met a few people who believed similar. The percieved itchiness seemed to reduce over time, also. Furthermore, I can't remember a single local I met that had lots of bites, or seemed to scratch like travellers did. Would be nice to see some studies, though.
posted by MetaMonkey at 3:20 PM on June 21, 2006

I can't stand any anti-mosquito product I've tried (sprays, creams, electric diffusers, etc.) so I just surrendered to the little monsters a few summers ago.

I won't say I have become immune to them, but they do bother me a lot less and the bites are not as itchy as they used to. Except near the sole of my feet, that always hurts worst.
posted by funambulist at 3:26 PM on June 21, 2006

I would hypothesize that it's like getting used to the heat - less of an actual adaptation that simply learning to ignore it. Perceptual adaptation or whatever formal name it has that I don't know.
posted by GuyZero at 3:27 PM on June 21, 2006

Anecdotal: My kid brother was a counselor at a Boy Scout camp in northern Wisconsin for several summers. According to him, bites would always sting and make a small welt, but in about two weeks they'd no longer create an itch. In northern WI (or MI) 2 weeks in the woods is a hell of a lot of mosquito bites.
posted by klarck at 3:34 PM on June 21, 2006

Not sure about the 'nornal' inflammation reaction to mosquito salivary antigens, but people seem to be working on it.

I suppose one could try hyposensitization against those antigens.

iirc, mosquitos (the biting kind) find their targets by smell. It's possible that locals may have adopted to be less attractive smelling (or have an unattractive smell) to mosquitos (mosquitos are a common vector for many viruses - it's not implausible that individuals who weren't perceived as yummy to mosquitos had decreased risk of exposure to various fecundity-detrimental viral infections).
posted by porpoise at 3:35 PM on June 21, 2006

...Though there are other reasons to not allow mosquito bites.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 3:39 PM on June 21, 2006

I spent a couple of weeks in El Salvador some time back. I got attacked incessantly. My grandmother's remedy of baking soda paste helped the itching, but not by much. By the end of the 2 week trip I still itched right at the time of the bite, but it faded quickly. So either I got used to it, or I did develop some kind of immunity.

The most amazing discovery for me was that rubbing alcohol applied after a bite kills the itching and the swelling. Seriously.
posted by O9scar at 4:09 PM on June 21, 2006

I seem to be extra tasty to mosquitos. They bite me and not people next to me.

When I'm at the beach, I find that if I don't shower after swimming (i.e. leave evaporated salt water on) I get bit a whole lot less.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 4:12 PM on June 21, 2006

There's a family story that my great uncle developed an immunity to mosquito bites.
posted by Lucinda at 4:28 PM on June 21, 2006

I was exposed to more mosquitos than one could shake a stick at for months on end. You definately either get used to it psychologically, or your body's normal histamine reaction abides after repeated exposure. By the end I was probably getting bit twenty or thirty times a day and it didn't bother me at all. A couple of months after getting back to the first world and my body had already lost whatever "adaptiveness" I'd gained.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:03 PM on June 21, 2006

My grandparents in Montana are completely immune from a lifetime of bites. The bites don't swell or itch. As in, my grandmother will turn around to talk to me and there are three of them on her face, humping away fruitlessly.

My father, who grew up there, seems similarly resistant.

I get chewed and itch like the dickens.
posted by hermitosis at 5:36 PM on June 21, 2006

Once you're an adult I think it's game over. I grew up in a place with no mosquitos and have spent my entire adult life working around the coast, swamps, rivers and lakes and I haven't stopped reacting to them physically at all. I have got a lot better at ignoring the itchiness over the years.

Also remember that mosquitos don't travel far- half a mile tops for most species in their entire lives, and so sub populations can be pretty distinct. It's entirely possible for you to react badly to the bugs at one location, when you have no reaction at all to the bugs a mile away which is going to mess up your little experiment.
posted by fshgrl at 5:38 PM on June 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

It probably should be pointed out that even if what you're saying is true, it's no protection against diseases like malaria or yellow fever.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 5:39 PM on June 21, 2006

I lived in Minnesota for 23 years, I never heard of someone gaining an immunity. You may get used to it psychologically, but the bites still itch no matter what.
posted by andywolf at 5:52 PM on June 21, 2006

On a related note, I noticed as a child that I -never- got "mosquito bites," in the sense of the raised, red welts. I couldn't understand if it was because I wasn't being bitten, or because I wasn't reacting. Finally, I watched a mosquito bite my arm, circled the spot with a pen, and kept an eye on it... No reaction whatsoever. Apparently I was born with a natural immunity to the agents in their saliva that cause the histamine reaction. So obviously it's possible for a human to be nonreactive - though I can't actually answer your question as to -developing- that resistance (it seems it's already been answered sufficiently anyhow).
posted by po at 6:01 PM on June 21, 2006

I've generally found that the bites swell and itch a lot more at the beginning of the summer. By the end of the season, new bites are still noticeably red and itch a bit, but not nearly like the huge atrociously unignorable welts I'd get at the beginning of the summer.

For me, the process seems to start over each summer. I've also noticed that if I travel, I seem to have a huge reaction to the new mosquitoes, even if the ones back home have stopped bothering me so much.
posted by occhiblu at 6:20 PM on June 21, 2006

It would be useful to distinguish between the two different construals of immunisation being discussed - not getting bitten, and being bitten but not reacting to bites.

Also, if I remember correctly, spicy foods and vitamin B serve to make the consuming individuals' body smell less appealing to mosquitoes, which would go some way to explaining the popularity of chilli in asia.
posted by MetaMonkey at 6:40 PM on June 21, 2006

Seasoned beekeepers say they develop an immunity to beestings. I talked to a guy once who said at the beginning of the season he'd get redness and swelling, but after being stung a certain amount it didn't matter anymore.

Mosquito bites may work in the same way ... ?
posted by bisesi at 7:14 PM on June 21, 2006

yes, anecdotally
posted by caddis at 7:50 PM on June 21, 2006

i think some people get less sensitive to them as they're exposed ... i've been bitten up terribly but 20 minutes later was fine

it seems as if there's not as many in michigan cities as there used to be ... it would be a shame if our state bird went extinct

no, actually, it wouldn't
posted by pyramid termite at 8:52 PM on June 21, 2006

Second what Klarck said... I was a scout camp counselor and after two weeks, no welts. Nice not having to reapply repellent in hot weather as well.
posted by methylsalicylate at 7:25 AM on June 22, 2006

I grew up in the back-east mosquito zone, and have the type of metabolism they find very attractive. After living in a mosquito-free environment for many years, I find that when I return to a mosquito zone, my reaction to the bites is much worse. So I believe some immunity can be acquired, in the sense of bisesi's beekeepers (not exactly po's immunity, but an acquired tolerance resulting from exposure).
posted by Rash at 10:20 AM on June 22, 2006

Not an answer to your question, but topically applied ammonia seems to help stop the itching, if you put it on soon after you're bitten.
posted by small_ruminant at 12:57 PM on June 22, 2006

I've heard before that if you take vitamin B12 for a month before you are going to be exposed to mosquitos that you won't get bitten. Apparently it's something about the way it makes you smell to them. I had a teacher who once swore by it.

A quick google search found this article.

Of course, taking all that B12 probably has some hideous side effect that is much worse than getting the bites.
posted by MattS at 3:36 PM on June 22, 2006

I've found that over the years I've simply learned to resist scratching at mosquito bites. If I just leave the bite alone for a couple of hours, it's like it never happened. If I do scratch one, though, it will swell up into an itchy welt that annoys me for a couple of days.

I still use Off though, since bites can end up getting scratched inadvertently by clothing, etc. Not to mention the freaky diseases they can carry these days.
posted by Tubes at 9:28 AM on June 23, 2006

Somewhat related news from the world of SCIENCE.
posted by MetaMonkey at 5:15 PM on July 6, 2006

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