When it comes to mosquitoes, humans are actually lucky. Not all of the 3,500 mosquito species around the world have a taste for humans, or at least not solely humans. If they did, we’d all be sucked dry pretty quickly.
According to Richard Pollack, instructor in the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, some species of mosquitoes would sooner starve to death than feed on people.
“There is no mosquito anywhere in the world that is so specific it only feeds on people,” Pollack says. “Many, if they had noses, would turn those noses up at the thought of us. But unfortunately there are several types that feed on us, in addition to animals.”
For those of us who fight off mosquitoes left and right while our friends remain unbugged, the questions remain: Why do mosquitoes seem to love us? And, how can we stop them?
Why you might find yourself on the receiving end of more mosquito bites than people around you involves hidden characteristics that make us all unique.
“We each present a different heat and odor signature,” Pollack says. “If you were to use a thermal imager and look at a dozen people, you’d see remarkable differences. Those are all perceived differently by mosquitoes.”
According to WebMD, there’s still a lot of research to do to figure out why some people attract more mosquitoes than others. But some possibilities include people who have higher levels of cholesterol or steroids on the skin’s surface, those who produce high levels of uric acid and people who emit large amounts of carbon dioxide, especially when they sweat.
A quick web search leads you to myriad theories about why you might attract mosquitoes, but it should all be taken with a grain of salt. Some people cite diet as the reason for all the bites. But Pollack says you shouldn’t spend too much time worrying about what foods you’re eating.
“While there is a lot of discussion about foods that can increase or decrease your likelihood of being bitten, it’s just not reliable,” he says.
“In a lab test you can demonstrate some slight influence, but go outside of that environment into a person’s regular daily life, and it’s not going to have a strong effect.”
Keeping your skin covered as much as possible is a great way to avoid bites, but that also depends on the mosquito. Along the U.S. eastern seaboard, a highly aggressive species called the salt marsh mosquito can bite a person through denim.
“They are not as involved in transmitting pathogens as is the yellow fever mosquito, but the salt marsh mosquitoes are the bane of existence for people who live or vacation along the east coast,” Pollack says.
The best strategy for keeping mosquitoes from turning your skin into a buffet is to simply use a repellent that is registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Pollack says.
“There are so many different (types of repellents) that are not registered. It doesn’t mean they don’t work, but you’re taking a risk,” he says.
“These have not been tested for safety and efficacy if they haven’t been through the EPA’s process. Some people fear the chemicals, but the benefits of the products when used properly far outweigh the risks. They can save your life.”
Additionally, search your home property to find areas where standing water accumulates, like gutters, trash cans and open containers, and make sure the water won’t accumulate again.
If you’re concerned about viruses transmitted by mosquitoes, such as zika and chikungunya, Pollack says to be aware of what’s happening in areas you’re interested in visiting. And when you do go to those areas, bring enough registered repellent with you.
“You can enjoy the outdoors if you are smart,” Pollack says.
“Use registered repellent and use it judiciously. Your risk won’t be zero for mosquito bites, except for in Iceland where there are no mosquitoes. People say to get outside and enjoy nature. Just realize that sometimes nature enjoys us too.”