Unless you are an entomologist, here’s a fact that won’t make you leap with joy: for every human on the planet, there are almost 220 million insects, and that figure is growing rapidly. (Last year, there were only 200 million creepy-crawlies per person, so you can see how quickly they are multiplying.)
Without insects, the planet’s eco-system would collapse. But it can be difficult to see what contribution mosquitos make to the world. Don’t you just hate them? That high-pitched whine as they approach, their deftness at dodging your swat, those angry, red bumps that itch horribly and make you look as though you’ve contracted the plague.
It is only the female mosquito that feeds on humans, because it needs a blood meal in order to produce eggs. When the mosquito bites it injects saliva, which contains proteins that prevent blood from clotting, aiding the flow into the mosquito’s mouth. Many of those proteins cause immune reactions, including swelling and itching around the bite area.
There are more than 3,500 species of mosquito, all with their preferred habitat. There are two sub-types that live in the London Underground alone. The bad news is that, thanks to our long, wet, warm summers and the popularity of garden water features and water butts, the UK mosquito population is rising.
“Worldwide, there has been a ten per cent increase in the mosquito population due to climate change and in Britain there has been an even sharper rise,” says Howard Carter, inventor of Incognito, a range of Deet-free insect repellents. “This August is going to be horrendous, and not just mosquitoes. There are Highland midges, horseflies, sandflies and the Blandford Fly, which is becoming more common in the south-east of England.”
Mosquitoes have sensory antennae which detect our kairomones (bodily emissions such as CO2 and lactic acid) through our skin and breath. They can detect prey from more than a kilometre away, and if you’ve used soap or shower gel that contains lavender or geranium, you’ve made yourself especially attractive. The secret is to make yourself ‘invisible’ by using scent-free protection.
For those of us who are staycationing or holidaying in Europe, mosquitoes are merely an irritation, but if you are travelling to more exotic climes, their bite is potentially fatal.
An estimated 700,000,000 people are expected to catch malaria from mosquito bites this year. Symptoms include fever, joint pain and headache and, in extreme cases, coma and death. Yet an alarming number of holiday-makers are cavalier about the risks.
“There are three outcomes from malaria,” says Felicity Nicholson, medical director of Trailfinders Travel Clinic. “You can die. You can recover. Or you can get a form that recurs. In the clinic we only see people who have thought about protection, but it’s the people who don’t that I worry about.”
If you are vacationing in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and the sub-tropical Americas, you must protect yourself by taking anti-malarial drugs, using appropriate insect repellent and sleeping under a net.
In addition to anti-malarial tablets, Nicholson recommends you reapply repellent spray several times a day, especially in humid conditions and after swimming. If your hotel room has air-con and the electricity supply is robust, a bed net is not essential but when using one make sure it is impregnated with repellent.
“If you’re someone who reacts badly to bites, start taking anti-histamine tablets before your trip,” she says. “Also, take a low-dose hydrocortisone cream in case you react badly to a bite. If you are going to a remote area and you know you are prone to bites becoming infected, take precautionary antibiotics with you.”
Mosquitoes zero in on ankles, wrists and ears because the blood vessels are nearer the surface and skin is thinner there. So be sure to apply insect repellent on those places. Now that mosquitoes are part of the summer here at home, much of this advice applies wherever you are.
Tips to minimise the risk of being bitten
Steer clear of stagnant water
Don’t use perfumes and scented toiletries
Regularly apply an effective insect repellent
Cover up arms and legs in the evening, when mosquitoes bite
Wear light-coloured clothing if possible as mosquitoes are attracted to black, blue, green and floral patterns
Incognito Anti-Mosquito Spray, 100ml, £9.49
This protects against other insects too, including wasps, fleas, bees, midges and gnats. It’s made from 100 per cent natural ingredients, is Deet-free, and is suitable for high-risk areas where malaria and dengue fever are transmitted.
Repel 55 Deet Insect Repellent Pump Spray, 60 ml, £4.60
A pump action spray that provides four to five hours of protection.
Mosi-guard Extra Repellent, 100ml, £6.99
A single application of this natural non-toxic formula gives ten hours protection from mosquitoes and other biting insects. Suitable for use in high-risk areas.
MozzyOff Midge and Mosquito Repellent Lotion, 100ml, £9.99
This is made from natural plant extracts, and offers lasting protection without frequent re-application.
Insect Balm by Mosquito Milk, 13ml, £4.99
This has a no-fingers applicator. It calms irritations caused by bites and stings and is effective against nettle rash and jellyfish stings.
Lifesystems Bite Sting, 50ml, £4.75
A natural witch hazel roll-on to give relief and reduce irritation.
Care Stingose Spray, 25ml, £5.10
The Australian antidote to bites and stings. It reduces inflammation, blistering itching and allergic reactions.