This condition can cause blisters and swelling–and can increase the risk of infection.

By Amanda MacMillan
Updated August 11, 2020
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There are a lot of reasons to hate mosquitoes; these bloodsuckers carry diseases like the West Nile and Zika viruses, dengue fever, and malaria. But even without the threat of serious illness, mosquitoes can make summer a living hell if you have a mosquito bite allergy—developing huge, red, swollen bumps compared to the small bumps most people get. As it turns out, there’s a name for this allergy. Here’s everything you need to know about “skeeter syndrome” and how to keep yourself 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, a New York City 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,” Dr. Parikh tells Health.

People who experience these intense 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 suffer from it or why it affects some more than others. Dr. Parikh also points out that people with skeeter syndrome don't necessarily attract mosquitoes more than others. They simply react more seriously when they do get bitten.

Skeeter syndrome symptoms

Skeeter syndrome is characterized by signs of skin 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 show 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, vomiting, or difficulty breathing.

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“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 has 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 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.

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.”

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