How to Tell if You’re Allergic to Mosquito Bites: Signs of Skeeter Syndrome

Fact checked by Megan Soliman MD, MSc
Board-certified internal medicine physician

Mosquitoes are annoying, there’s no denying that. They can be a nuisance during a summer picnic, and their constant buzzing can keep you up all night.

But can you actually be allergic to mosquito bites? If you often get a big, red bump after a mosquito bite that’s very itchy and painful, chances are you may be allergic.

Let’s take a look at other signs of Skeeter syndrome, or an allergy to mosquito bites, and what you can do to relieve the itching and prevent mosquitoes from biting you in the first place.

Signs of a mosquito bite

Ever noticed red, itchy bumps on your skin after you’ve spent time outdoors? These are probably mosquito bites.

Most mosquito bites happen in wooded areas or near water — mosquitoes breed in stagnant water, so you’re more likely to come across them in damp areas and humid climates. They are most active at dusk or dawn, but they can bite you during the day too.

Mosquitoes are attracted by the body heat, scent, and chemicals in our sweat. When a mosquito finds someone to feed on, it pierces the skin with its specialized, spear-like appendage called a proboscis to draw blood. You can recognize a mosquito bite by these common signs:

  • A small red bump
  • Swelling
  • Itchiness
  • Dark, bruise-like spots

It’s not uncommon for a mosquito to bite you several times, so you may notice several bumps close together, often on your arms or legs.

A woman with big mosquito bites on her shoulder

Why do mosquito bites swell?

​​When a mosquito’s proboscis pierces your skin, a small amount of saliva is released into your skin. The red, itchy bump you get at the bite site is your body’s reaction to the proteins in the mosquito’s saliva.

How bad the swelling is depends on your sensitivity to mosquito bites.

While some people may have just a tiny mark that is barely noticeable, others have a strong allergic reaction to mosquito bites resulting in big, sore bumps. In this case, mosquito bites may be particularly itchy. Try to resist the urge to scratch the bite: you may break the skin and make it more susceptible to infections, preventing it from healing faster.

What is Skeeter syndrome?

Skeeter syndrome is an allergic reaction to a mosquito’s saliva that results in big, red bumps at the site of a mosquito bite. People with Skeeter syndrome may experience significant inflammation and swelling after a mosquito bite and sometimes can even develop a fever.

When you’re allergic to mosquito bites, your symptoms may appear 8–10 hours after the bite. They usually resolve on their own within 3–10 days, if there are no complications. However, you should seek immediate medical attention if you experience:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Muscle weakness
  • Hives
  • Wheezing

These symptoms can be a sign of a severe allergic reaction or a more serious condition that requires medical help. For example, a skin infection called cellulitis can cause similar symptoms to Skeeter syndrome, but it usually develops over a few days as opposed to within hours of a mosquito bite in the case of Skeeter syndrome.

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Skeeter syndrome vs. normal mosquito bite: What’s the difference?

So how big can a mosquito bite really get if you have Skeeter syndrome?

​​A normal mosquito bite is usually just a small red bump less than half an inch (or 1.3 centimeters) in diameter. It may be a bit swollen and red, but the redness and swelling normally go down within a few days.

If you have Skeeter syndrome, bumps up to 4 inches (2–10 centimeters) in diameter may appear quickly after the bite and progress over the next several days. These bumps can also be:

  • Very itchy
  • Hard
  • Warm to the touch
  • Painful

How rare is Skeeter syndrome?

Skeeter syndrome can affect anyone, but it’s most common among children, older adults, and people with immune system disorders. Very young children who haven’t yet developed an immune response to mosquito bites are the most likely to be allergic to them.

Skeeter syndrome is quite rare, and you can usually grow out of it — your symptoms may improve with age or after being exposed to mosquito bites often enough for your body to become immune to them.

But you can develop it later in life too. This may be caused by the changes in your immune system or you moving to a different area where you encounter different types of mosquitoes your body isn’t familiar with.

How to treat allergic reactions to mosquito bites

Normally mosquito bites don’t cause any lasting harm and don’t require treatment. But if they are very itchy and swollen, it is natural to want to speed up the healing process or at least relieve unpleasant symptoms.

Just like with most other allergies, you can use oral antihistamines and topical steroid creams to improve Skeeter syndrome. These medications can bring down swelling and inflammation and soothe itchiness. Still, it’s best to consult your doctor before starting any treatments. They will review your symptoms and recommend the right medication for you.

A woman spraying insect repellent in the woods to prevent mosquito bites

Home remedies for big mosquito bites

Most itchy mosquito bites only last a few days and heal on their own. But sometimes the itching may be so strong you can’t help but scratch that little bump. These home remedies and tips can help soothe the itching and make the bites heal faster:

  • Apply a cool compress. It can bring down the swelling and stop the itching.
  • Use aloe vera gel. It can soothe the inflammation, relieve the itching, and help your skin heal faster.
  • Take an oatmeal bath or apply an oatmeal paste to the bite to soothe the itch.
  • Dab some baking soda paste on the bite. It can stop the itching and bring down the swelling.
  • Make a chamomile tea compress. Chamomile has natural antioxidant and antihistamine properties that can help calm down inflamed skin.
  • Apply calamine lotion to the bite. It has a cooling effect that helps to soothe the itchy skin.
  • And lastly, if the itch is too strong, press your fingernail on the bite for a few seconds. It can help to temporarily relieve the itch without actually scratching the bite.

If you want to make sure not to scratch the bite, you can cover the bump with a bandage. It can also prevent infections if you have already broken the skin on it.

How to prevent mosquito bites

Even if you’re not allergic to mosquito bites, getting bitten by them isn’t much fun. Sometimes mosquitos can carry various viruses and parasites that can cause disease.

Mosquitoes tend to come out at dawn and dusk, so staying indoors during this time and keeping your windows closed — or using a mosquito net on your windows — can help avoid bites.

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But you can go one step further in avoiding mosquito bites. Since mosquitoes breed in stagnant water, you can eliminate any potential breeding grounds around your home:

  • Fix any leaks.
  • Keep rain gutters clean.
  • Clean unused flower pots and other containers that can gather water.
  • Empty children’s paddle pools after use.

If you want to enjoy the great outdoors without pesky mosquitoes bothering you, cover as much skin as possible and use insect repellent on any exposed skin. You can treat your clothing with a repellent too. Opt for products with 6–25 percent DEET — they can protect you from mosquitoes for up to 6 hours. If you’re applying repellent directly on your skin, make sure to test it on a small patch first. They may cause a skin reaction, especially if you are prone to allergies and have sensitive skin.

Burning citronella-scented candles when you’re camping or spending time outdoors can also help deter mosquitoes. If you have Skeeter syndrome, you may even want to take an antihistamine before going outside. It won’t stop mosquitoes from biting you, but it can prevent a severe allergic reaction if they do get to you.

Key takeaways

Allergic reactions to mosquito bites are pretty rare; people with lower immune systems, children, and older adults are more likely to have Skeeter syndrome. Its most common signs are big, red bumps after a mosquito bite that can be particularly itchy and painful. Normally mosquito bites don’t require treatment, but taking antihistamines and applying a cold compress or aloe vera gel to the bite may help bring down the itchiness and swelling and help the bites heal faster.

January 27, 2023