As kids growing up in the Midwest, my cousin and I spent almost every summer day swimming at the outdoor park district pool, jumping through sprinklers and exploring the few wooded areas that had yet to be suburbanized into Paneras. Before going home to our respective houses, we’d count our mosquito bites for the day to see who won. What we were competing for wasn’t entirely clear, but mosquito bites were the best indicator of who rolled down the grassy hills the hardest — the best barometer of a summer well spent. If we weren’t closing in on 20 bites by the Fourth of July, were we even trying?
Or at least that’s how I explain away the masochist glee I still get out of a big, juicy mosquito bite.
Mosquitoes are drawn to the carbon dioxide we exhale — especially when we exercise and produce even more of the stuff. They’re also attracted to sweat as well as (evidently) beer, the color black, and oddly enough, Limburger cheese. Not to mention, their biting increases by 500 percent when there’s a full moon.
All of which would horrify most anyone else, but for me, these vampiric party girls can come and get it.
Once my squad starts closing in, they fix their straw-like mouths onto my sunburned skin and suck my blood like it’s a Slurpee. All the while, they’re injecting me with their saliva, which contains an anticoagulant and other proteins. The immune system detects this as a foreign substance, inspiring the release of histamine, a compound that helps white blood cells get to the bite and fight infection. The result is inflammation, swelling, itching, and of course, a big ol’ smile on my face.
This would be inconvenient if I didn’t scratch like it’s the first day of DJ school. Scientists believe that scratching activates the reward-processing areas of the brain and releases serotonin, which is why it makes me feel so good. Along those lines, if scratching an itch is such an apt idiom for satisfaction, then having mosquito bites should be, by extension, inherently satisfying.
It’s true that the more you scratch, the more the bite itches, which can quickly turn into a vicious cycle, escalating to skin breaking, bleeding and scabbing. But you know what’s much, much worse? DEET, the most common chemical ingredient in insect repellant. It can irritate the skin and eyes, as well as cause headaches and breathing problems. In fact, long-term DEET exposure among National Park workers has been linked to insomnia, mood problems and impaired cognitive function. That shit also kills fresh-water fish.
In other words, you can keep your laws off of my body, dermatology!
In fairness, some mosquitoes carry diseases that are objectively bad. West Nile virus is the most common mosquito-borne disease in the U.S., followed by malaria. But for context, in 2018, there were around 2,647 cases of West Nile, compared to more than two million cases of COVID-19. Speaking of which, scientists are fairly certain that mosquitos cannot pass the coronavirus. The same goes for other transmittable viruses like HIV.
To be clear, I hate all other bug bites. (After all, I’m not a monster.) When I first moved to Brooklyn eight years ago, I was convinced I had bed bugs. These bites, though red and itchy, were different — smaller, crueler and traveling in packs of three (like the mean girls at my high school). For weeks I lost sleep trying to locate the source, until I caught, killed and bagged a mysterious bug that I was certain was of the bed variety. I ran to the nearest exterminator, threw the baggy on his table and almost in tears said, “It’s a bed bug, isn’t it?”
He could only laugh: “Sweetheart, you got fleas.”
Naturally, I washed and fumigated everything until the fleas were no more. The problem is, city living has also left me mosquito-less. Over the course of a whole summer, I might, if I’m lucky, get a few bites on my ankles, feet and elbows. Every so often, though, I get a nice plump bump on my arm or leg, and feel like a kid again.
It’s an itch I absolutely must scratch.