You’re trying your best to enjoy an evening cookout, but a constant swarm of mosquitoes follows you from grill to poolside. The threat? A pierce to your skin, leaving behind an itchy red welt and possibly even a serious illness. As you swat madly at the pests, you notice that others seem completely unfazed. Could it be that mosquitoes prefer to bite some people over others?
The short answer is yes. Mosquitoes do exhibit blood-sucking preferences, say the experts. "One in 10 people are highly attractive to mosquitoes," reports Jerry Butler, PhD, professor emeritus at the University of Florida. But it's not dinner they're sucking out of you. Female mosquitoes -- males do not bite people -- need human blood to develop fertile eggs. And apparently, not just anyone's will do.
For a week, you've wiped your preschooler's runny nose all day long, then listened to her cough in her sleep all night. She's been looking and feeling miserable, and you want to help her get better, but you aren't sure exactly how to categorize her symptoms. Is it a cold, or does she have allergies?
You aren't alone; many parents are confused about the proper way to treat a coughing, sneezing child, because colds and allergies often have overlapping symptoms.
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Although researchers have yet to pinpoint what mosquitoes consider an ideal hunk of human flesh, the hunt is on. "There's a tremendous amount of research being conducted on what compounds and odors people exude that might be attractive to mosquitoes," says Joe Conlon, PhD, technical advisor to the American Mosquito Control Association. With 400 different compounds to examine, it's an extremely laborious process. "Researchers are just beginning to scratch the surface," he says.
Scientists do know that genetics account for a whopping 85% of our susceptibility to mosquito bites. They've also identified certain elements of our body chemistry that, when found in excess on the skin's surface, make mosquitoes swarm closer.
"People with high concentrations of steroids or cholesterol on their skin surface attract mosquitoes," Butler tells WebMD. That doesn't necessarily mean that mosquitoes prey on people with higher overall levels of cholesterol, Butler explains. These people simply may be more efficient at processing cholesterol, the byproducts of which remain on the skin's surface.
Mosquitoes also target people who produce excess amounts of certain acids, such as uric acid, explains entomologist John Edman, PhD, spokesman for the Entomological Society of America. These substances can trigger mosquitoes' sense of smell, luring them to land on unsuspecting victims.
But the process of attraction begins long before the landing. Mosquitoes can smell their dinner from an impressive distance of up to 50 meters, explains Edman. This doesn't bode well for people who emit large quantities of carbon dioxide.
"Any type of carbon dioxide is attractive, even over a long distance," Conlon says. Larger people tend to give off more carbon dioxide, which is why mosquitoes typically prefer munching on adults to small children. Pregnant women are also at increased risk, as they produce a greater-than-normal amount of exhaled carbon dioxide. Movement and heat also attract mosquitoes.
So if you want to avoid an onslaught of mosquito bites at your next outdoor gathering, stake out a chaise lounge rather than a spot on the volleyball team. Here's why. As you run around the volleyball court, the mosquitoes sense your movement and head toward you. When you pant from exertion, the smell of carbon dioxide from your heavy breathing draws them closer. So does the lactic acid from your sweat glands. And then -- gotcha.
With a long track record -- mosquitoes have been around for 170 million years -- and more than 175 known species in the U.S., these shrewd summertime pests clearly aren't going to disappear any time soon. But you can minimize their impact.