Are Over-The-Counter Bug Bite Treatments Useless?

Trying to ease that itch after a muggy night outside with hungry mosquitos? Reaching for the anti-itch cream you got at the drugstore might not do much for you, according to a new report that looked at the over-the-counter remedies we most often pick up for bug bites. says the Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin released a report that said after reviewing the evidence, OTC creams and antihistamine pills don’t do as much for us as we think when slathering them on and swallowing them down.

The study also found oral topical steroids to not have enough evidence in helping treat inflammation from bites.

“We didn’t find much published evidence for the various medicines that are used to treat simple insect bites,” says David Phizackerley, the deputy editor of the DTB. “Guidance on the management of simple insect bites is based on expert opinion rather than direct evidence from clinical trials.”

For the most part, say the study’s authors, many of the symptoms we experience from bug bites are “self-limiting,” and no treatment might be needed at all. The DTB says antihistamine tablets won’t do much, and their topical treatment counterparts are “only marginally effective, occasionally cause sensitization, and…use for longer than three days is not recommended.”

The study shows a lack of medical evidence — not that treatments definitely don’t work or that you should stop using them, especially if a doctor has suggested their use.

Their advice on insect bites:

For mild local reactions, the area should be cleaned and a cold compress applied. Oral analgesics can be given for pain, and a mild corticosteroid cream applied to reduce inflammation and itching. Large local reactions can be treated with an oral antihistamine. Non-sedating antihistamines are preferred during the day, but a sedating antihistamine can be of use at night if sleep is disturbed. Antibacterial treatment is not required for simple insect bites, but secondary infections should be treated with an oral antibacterial agent in accordance with local guidelines.

Are Over-the-Counter Bug Bite Treatments Useless? []


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  1. Tim says:

    It may just be psychosomatic. But since the feeling of an itch is just that, a feeling, wouldn’t a psychosomatic treatment be just as effective as any other one?

    In other words, just keep telling yourself it works, and it will.

    • madsquabbles says:

      pretty much all i do is ignore it and stop scratching. seems the more you scratch the more it itches. just quit thinking about it and you’re fine. wish i was able to do this when i was a kid.

    • Necoras says:

      The Placebo effect is very powerful in situations like this. Even just having a cooling effect from rubbing in some sort of cream can give relief for a long enough period for the nerves to calm down on their own.

    • nightowl85 says:

      I am a physician and it is not just a ‘feeling’. It is caused by a reaction when the body releases histamine. Most people will have no reaction to the saliva of the mosquito and will only develop a small wheal that disappears in a matter of minutes. Scratching worsens the itch because it causes further reaction by distributing the saliva (of the mosquito) and histamine further. I happen to be allergic to the bites of some insects and a mosquito bite will produce a ‘volcano’ that burns for days or weeks, it bothers me when I’m working and bothers me when I’m trying to sleep. So for the few people with this same problem, the antihistamine pills do work and the lidocaine lotions or sprays are very useful. The itching is not in my head, if you saw the size and appearance of the lesion you would understand it is something painful and that can be very disruptive. As a physician, I find better numbing the area than taking pills, but every case will be different.

  2. dulcinea47 says:

    Look for some stuff called “SSSting stop”, it’s the only OTC product I”ve found that actually works on bug bites. It says it’s “homeopathic”, which means it should be complete bullsh-t, and I wouldn’t have bought it if I’d realized that when it was recommended to me. But I did, and it works amazingly well. Maybe it’s the citronella oil.

    • The hand that feeds, now with more bacon says:

      Skeeter Stik… used to get them at the dollar store. Topical anesthetic. Definitely works.

  3. perruptor says:

    No mention of ammonia liquid or gel preparations? Oddly incomplete.

  4. 3fingerbrown says:

    I got into a lot of chiggers the day before I flew to Scandinavia. Trying to ask a Danish pharmacist for a remedy for chigger bites was a challenge. Ended up going to a department store for some clear base coat nail polish.

  5. caradrake says:

    I am veeeery prone to mosquito bites. Like, in a group of friends, no one else is bothered, while I have dozens of itchy bites. I’ve tried everything I’ve found – and honestly, nothing seems to work for it.

    • Free Legal Advice! says:

      Ice stops the itching. But sometimes it is more uncomfortable than the bites. It also reduces swelling if applied quickly enough. I’ve also heard good things about vinegar, like you treat a sting-ray sting, but haven’t tried it personally.

      • caradrake says:

        I’ve tried both. Ice seems to make the itching more noticeable/painful. Vinegar doesn’t do anything but make me a little smelly.

        Most bug repellents don’t work, either. I had finally found one that worked really well, but then they discontinued it.

        I think I am just doomed to being a mosquito target.

        • HogwartsProfessor says:

          I have the same problem; I think they love me. If you find something that works let me know. The only way I know to fix it is stay inside during the early evening hours.

    • iesika says:

      Eat more garlic if you’re going to be outside, and mosquitoes might move on to a more appetizing target. This works beautifully for me.

    • alamochica says:

      I’ve found that putting any sort of alcohol on a mosquito bite takes the sting out & stops the itch pretty quickly. Facial astringent is my go-to, but any sort of hard liquor will work in a pinch :-)

  6. GreatWhiteNorth says:

    In my experience most bug related products perform poorly with one exception, AfterBite. I have found for many types of bites and stings (ants, black flies, etc.) AfterBite provides great relief.

    • cmdr.sass says:

      AfterBite is awesome. I have been using it practically since it was invented.

    • Whiskey Tango Foxtrot says:

      I was going to make the same post. AfterBite is the best product out there for bites and stings. My 5 year old niece got stung just the other day and I immediately ran for it (I keep it in the fridge – the cold feeling of putting it on a sting helps as well as the actual product) and within 5 minutes she was up and running around the yard again, no tears.

    • corridor7f says:

      AfterBite is amazing – works every time – it’s the ammonia.

      That said, there is a certain amount of willpower involved in not scratching. You have to reapply and not touch your bites at all. Scratching = more itching.

  7. Kathlene says:

    The only thing that worked for me as a kid was a paste of meat tenderizer (a white powder) and water applied to the bite. It never failed to stop the itch, and I’m one of “those” people that mosquitoes are drawn to. No clue why it worked, but it did.

    The ammonia-based gels work OK, but when I had 100+ bites recently (damn you, Bonaire) I got sick from having that much ammonia on my skin. I’m packing meat tenderizer on future island trips.

    • iesika says:

      Meat tenderizer is what we always used when I was a kid for stinging caterpillar stings. That was absolutely the only thing that ever worked!

  8. HSVhockey says:

    I just spray windex on bug bites (on account of the ammonia).

    • redskull says:

      Yep, me too. Probably absorbing into my skin and slowly killing me, but at least I don’t itch.

  9. Pagan wants a +1 button says:

    I’ve had good luck avoiding bites by carrying a dryer sheet in my pocket. The cheapo brand works just as well as the expensive ones. Just take an unused dryer sheet and carry it around on you.

  10. Mr. Fix-It says: "Canadian Bacon is best bacon!" says:

    Yeah those After-Bite sticks? They’re complete crap.

    I pop a Benadryl or two if I know I’m going to be getting a lot of bug-bites during the day. It won’t eliminate the itching and swelling reaction entirely, but it reduces it enough to make life bearable for a few hours.

  11. Fubish says: I don't know anything about it, but it seems to me... says:

    Antihistamines do other things to your system besides *maybe* alleviate an itch/sting. A topical burn relief spay that contains lidocaine works wonders.

  12. McRib wants to know if you've been saved by the Holy Clown says:

    Just whatever you do, don’t scratch it.

    Once you do, it’s all over.

  13. curiositykt says:

    Ammonia applied to the bite does wonders for making the itching stop. As does oral doses of benadryl.

    • curiositykt says:

      I should add – Benadryl doesn’t make me sleepy, so it works well, also I am allergic to DEET so I generally just get bit and then deal with the bites.

  14. msbask says:

    I don’t remember where I read it, but it works:

    Put hot water (as hot as you can stand it) on the bug bite. Really does work to stop itching, maybe because you’re distracted by the fact that you’ve just burned yourself, but still, it works.

  15. whittygirl says:

    OK, here’s what you do for mosquito bites. Get a piece of ice and some salt (drier ice cubes work best). Liberally pour salt on the ice cube, and apply salt-side down to the bite. Hold the ice cube on the bite until you feel a sting in the center of it. When you pull the ice off the skin will look paler temporarily.

    The longer you can stand the sting the better, and the faster you apply the remedy the better it works.

  16. Bsamm09 says:

    For bee and other stings, moisten loose cigarette tobacco (the kind for roll your own and not dip but chew is ok) and apply it to the sting. takes away the pain. Thanks mom.

  17. sgtyukon says:

    My mom used to keep a bottle of witch hazel in the fridge and slather that on us when we had bug bites in the summer. Was that effective? It was cool and it smelled nice.

  18. ElleAnn says:

    Neosporin with pain relief is the only thing that helped when I was stung by bullet ants in Panama (supposedly one of the most painful stinging bugs around). For mosquitos, I usually take the philosophy that if you can manage to not touch or scratch the bite for the first 30 minutes, it will go away on its own much faster and won’t itch. I also use a heavy dose of prevention– long sleeves (possibly a raincoat since the buggers can’t bite through them), long pants, and a mosquito net over my head when I’m somewhere with ridiculous numbers of mosquitoes. However, my definition of “ridiculous” may be different than most people’s since I worked as a field biologist for most of my 20’s in places where I was often surrounded by clouds of biting insects.

  19. framitz says:

    We had an abandoned dog house in our back yard that contained a wasp next we were preparing to get rid of.

    Before we got rid of it we had visitors with kids. We warned them to stay away from the dog house and why, but the 7 year old crawled inside and was stung dozens of times on his scalp.

    I had always used a paste of baking soda to reduce the pain of stings. We used a half pound of the stuff to treat the kids head while looking for any stingers. His pain was greatly reduced within seconds. We took him to the ER just in case he had a reaction from so many stings, he was fine.

    I’ve never tried any over the counter remedies, and don’t see a need to waste money.

  20. dobgold says:

    What is an oral topical steroid?

  21. daemonaquila says:

    They forgot to mention Calomine. This is one of the few things that works on certain weepy bites/welts like chiggers. Aside from that, I’ll give this two thumbs up. I have never had any effective topical treatment, though antihistamines have helped with large-scale problems (such as when I got nailed with over 50 chigger welts).

  22. gman863 says:

    Cortisone ointment. A tube of generic costs about $2 at Walmart, a buck at Dollar Tree.

    I got about eight fire ant bites a few weeks ago. Although it didn’t totally get rid of the paid, it reduced it significantly.

  23. shthar says:

    mild corticosteroid cream you say?

    and where would I get this magic cream?

    Over the counter you say?

  24. ldnyc says:

    I have chronic, idiopathic urticaria. In plain English, that means I have a chronic, persistent hives condition of unknown origin. I have had it for years. I get red, painfully itchy welts in various places on my body every single day. it’s aggravated by friction and sweat so April-October are particularly bad for me since it means every area where my clothing rubs (waistbands, bra line, etc) is affected. To make matters worse, I am an insect magnet. If there is a gnat, mosquito or fruit fly in the vicinity, it will find me and feast on me, cause even more itchy hives. So let’s just say i know a thing or two about treating itchy spots. Aside from taking Allegra-D (actually the generic Costco brand, which costs me less than my prescription co-pay) every morning (which works incredibly well to keep the hives from getting too bad), the best stuff for me is the “Cortizone 10 Easy Relief Applicator w/ Healing Aloe” (it’s a roll-on
    stick). For larger areas of coverage, I go with the “Cortizone 10 Maximum Strength Fast Itch Relief Cooling Gel.” I’m telling you, the stuff is like magic. I’ve been on so many prescriptions over the years and while most of them work to some extent, nothing gives me the relief that those over the counter products do. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that I would not be able to leave the house and function every day if it weren’t for those miracle products.

  25. Kuchen says:

    I have no idea why this works, but for particularly itchy mosquito bits, they will stop itching if I take my fingernail and pressing very firmly, make an X across the center of the bite. Better than any medication, and it’s free.

  26. teamplur says:

    Or just scratch like hell till you have an awsome scab! It’s so satisfying to rip the scabs off over and over….

  27. Negentropy says:

    I use the “Anti-Itch Creme” made by Natureplex that I was finding in the Dollartree stores around here. Works good (And is the right price!!!). They are also an american company. I look for instant relief. Cortizone cream on me does not seem to do anything… Besides skeeters, I get itchy after dry cold fronts in winter, and this is the best I have found… ( I am still looking for my grandpa’s linament recipe tho…)

  28. SEIowaRes says:

    My daughter and I are both slow to react to bug bites (generally don’t show a reaction for 24 hours) but once it does appear, the itching is unbearable and lasts seemingly forever! Either of us can get a bug bite, not see it for 24 hours, and once it appears, the itching will last for a week to 10 days without relenting. If either of us have multiple bites, it can often keep us from sleeping well. I know it sounds totally gross, and I agree. We avoid doing it at all cost, but the only relief IS to scratch it to a scab as it will go away within 24 hours of a scab forming. Once the itch is gone, the scab heals within a few more days. The risk of secondary infection is too high to allow my daughter to scratch it up. Furthermore, her being so young and she scars so easily, there are nights I’ve considered strapping oven mitts to both of us to keep either of us from scratching in our sleep.

    We have tried everything including OTC and prescription “reliefs” for the problem. In short, we have found nothing that relieves the itching. If anyone comes up with a relief that works, we would be forever in their debt.