Why do mosquitoes seem to bite some people more?

Back in 2015, I had an article published at The Conversation on why some people are more likely to be bitten by mosquitoes than others. It is one of the most commonly asked questions I get whenever I give public talks (or friends and family are quizzing me at summer BBQs).

This article was incredibly successful and has currently been read by approximately 1.4 million people. That is a lot of people. Hopefully the science of mosquito bites has got out there and actually helped a few people stop themselves or their family being bitten by mosquitoes!

The warm weather is starting to arrive here in Australia so I am sharing this once more for those wondering why they’re always the “mosquito magnet” among their friends…

Health Check: why mosquitoes seem to bite some people more

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There are up to 400 chemical compounds on human skin that could play a role in attracting mosquitoes.  sookie/Flickr, CC BY-SA

There’s always one in a crowd, a sort of harbinger of the oncoming mosquito onslaught: a person mosquitoes seem to target more than others. What is it about these unlucky chosen few that makes them mosquito magnets?

There are hundreds of mosquito species and they all have slightly different preferences when it comes to what or who they bite. But only females bite; they need a nutritional hit to develop eggs.

Finding someone to bite

Mosquitoes are stimulated by a number of factors when seeking out a blood meal. Initially, they’re attracted by the carbon dioxide we exhale. Body heat is probably important too, but once the mosquito gets closer, she will respond to the smell of a potential blood source’s skin.

Studies have suggested blood type (particularly type O), pregnancy and beer drinking all make you marginally more attractive to mosquitoes. But most of this research uses only one mosquito species. Switch to another species and the results are likely to be different.

There are up to 400 chemical compounds on human skin that could play a role in attracting (and perhaps repulsing) mosquitoes. This smelly mix, produced by bacteria living on our skin and exuded in sweat, varies from person to person and is likely to explain why there is substantial variation in how many mozzies we attract. Genetics probably plays the biggest role in this, but a little of it may be down to diet or physiology.

One of the best studied substances contained in sweat is lactic acid. Research shows it’s a key mosquito attractant, particularly for human-biting species such as Aedes aegypti. This should act as fair warning against exercising close to wetlands; a hot and sweaty body is probably the “pick of the bunch” for a hungry mosquito!

Probably the most famous study about their biting habits demonstrated that the mosquitoes that spread malaria (Anopheles gambiae) are attracted to Limburger cheese. The bacteria that gives this cheese its distinctive aroma is closely related to germs living between our toes. That explains why these mosquitoes are attracted to smelly feet.

But when another mosquito (such as Aedes aegypti) is exposed to the same cheese, the phenomenon is not repeated. This difference between mosquitoes highlights the difficulty of studying their biting behaviours. Even pathogens such as malaria may make us more attractive to mosquitoes once we’re infected.

Only females bite because they need a nutritional hit to develop eggs.
Sean McCann/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Researchers are trying to unscramble the irresistible smelly cocktails on the skins of “mosquito magnets”. But the bad news is that if you’re one of these people, there isn’t much you can do about it other than wearing insect repellents.

The good news is that you may one day help isolate a substance, or mixes of substances, that will help them find the perfect lure to use in mosquito traps. We could all then possibly say goodbye to topical insect repellents altogether.

Attraction or reaction?

Sometimes, it’s not the bite as much as the reaction that raises concerns. Think of the last time the mosquito magnets in your circle of friends started complaining about being bitten after the event where the purported mosquito feast took place. At least, they appear to have attracted more than the “bite free” people who were also at the picnic, or concert or whatever.

But just because some people didn’t react to mosquito bites, doesn’t mean they weren’t bitten. Just as we do with a range of environmental, chemical or food allergens, we all differ in our reaction to the saliva mosquitoes spit while feeding.

People who don’t react badly to mosquito bites may think they haven’t been bitten when they’ve actually been bitten as much as their itchy friends. In fact, while some people attract more mosquito bites than others, there’s unlikely to be anyone who never, ever, gets bitten.

The problem is that people who don’t react to mosquito bites may all too easily become complacent. If you’re one of them, remember that it only takes one bite to contract a mosquito-borne disease.

Finally, there is no evidence from anywhere in the world that there is something you can eat or drink that will stop you being bitten by mosquitoes. No, not even eating garlic, or swallowing vitamin B supplements.

The ConversationPerhaps if we spent as much time thinking about how to choose and use mosquito repellents as we do about why mosquitoes bite our friends and family less than us, there’d be fewer bites all around.

Cameron Webb, Clinical Lecturer and Principal Hospital Scientist, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 

Perfume won’t protect you from mosquito bites

VictorissecretThe headlines have been awash with claims that a popular perfume may repel as many mosquitoes as those regularly recommended by health authorities. Could it be true?

In short, no. There is little surprise that the results of this recently published study in the Journal of Insect Science has attracted so much attention. Everyone loves the idea that some unexpected substance could be used as a mosquito repellent. Even better if it performs as well, or even better, than those such as DEET or picaridin that are widely recommended by health authorities.

The scientists tested a range of commercial insect repellents. Three formulations of DEET based repellent, an oil of lemon eucalyptus (aka PMD) based repellent, three botanical-based repellents, a mosquito repellent patch (Vitamin B), a product not specifically designed as a repellent but often quoted as being effective (Avon skin so soft) and the perfume. Why include the perfume at all?

The logic behind including the perfume was a good one. It is often said that floral perfumes and other cosmetics attract mosquitoes. I’ve never thought this is actually the case. I mean, there is stronger evidence that mosquitoes re attracted to smelly foot bacteria than pleasant smelling cosmetics! I always suspected that the idea comes from the fact the mosquitoes (mostly the non-biting males) will feed on plant sugars. However, it was worth including in this study. Always good to gather some quantitative evidence on the response of blood-seeking mosquitoes. It could be a good opportunity to bust (or perhaps confirm) some urban myths.

I’ve written before about how you can test mosquito repellents. While the “arm-in-cage” methodology typically provides the best indication of how a mosquito repellent will perform, there are other methods commonly employed. In this case, the researchers used a “Y-tube” setup. This system basically allows mosquitoes to make a choice as to whether they preferentially fly towards one or the other ends of the tube. If you insert a hand treated with a substance into one end and another untreated hand as a control into the other, it is possible to measure the overall repellent effect by tracking the movement of mosquitoes.

Firstly, it is interested to note that the researchers found that some mosquitoes were attracted to the hand treated with DEET. If I was conducting an “arm in cage” test. I would be very surprised if I had any mosquitoes biting a DEET-treated arm within 2h of application. In one study, I found an approximately 7% DEET-based repellent stopped bites for a little under 2h. It makes me wonder how many mosquitoes may fly up to tube towards the treated hand but, given the chance, would actually bite the hand?

Fewer mosquitoes were attracted to hands treated with oil of lemon eucalyptus, not surprising either given this product is regularly recommended as an effective repellent by health authorities.

The testing of the perfume provided the headline grabbing results! For the first couple of hours, there wasn’t much difference in the proportion of mosquitoes repelled by the perfume compared to the other repellents. Why? It may be related to the strength of the odour overpowering the sensory organs of the mosquito. I think this is how some strongly smelling essential oils can provide some protection. It masks the normal chemical cocktails of smells on our skin that attracts mosquitoes.

We all know how overpowering the smell of some cosmetics can be. In this case of this experiment, a relatively high dose of the products as used. The authors make note of this too when they state “It must be noted that the concentration of perfume we used in this test was rather high and that lower concentrations of the same fragrance might have different effects.”

Could this perfume be used as a repellent?

Studies like this provide some fun headlines but they can be misleading to the public. What “works” for a relatively short period in a small laboratory based study does not necessarily stand up the practicalities of real life.

Notwithstanding the expense (the perfume is about AUS$80 for 100ml compared to less than AUS$10 for about the same amount of DEET-based repellent) I must admit that for some of these products, the smell can be so overpowering that applying them to large areas of skin would probably be more unpleasant than the bites of mosquitoes!

When trying to help the public choose and use mosquito repellents more effectively, it is critical that health authorities stick to products that are currently registered for use as a mosquito repellent and that have been demonstrated to provide suitable protection from biting mosquitoes over extended periods of time.

Perhaps the most important finding of the paper is not that the perfume repelled some mosquitoes but that patches infused with Vitamin B provide absolutely no protection from mosquitoes. This is one urban myth that never really seems to go away!

We also know that Victoria’s Secret perfume doesn’t stop bed bugs invading lingerie stores!

[The image used at the top of this piece is taken from here.]