Summer Itches: Bug Bites, Poison Ivy, Swimmer's Itch, and More | The Old Farmer's Almanac

The Itch(es) of Summer

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Margaret Boyles
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Mosquitoes, black flies, deer flies and horse flies, no see-ums. Poison ivy. Swimmer’s itch. Heat rash. Pollen allergies. Healing, peeling sunburns.

These tormentors balance out the luscious scents, sounds, and sights of summer around here. Most of them have already visited me.


As with most afflictions, prevention beats any amount of treatment or cure.

The best prevention for insect bites: Cover up completely, leaving no exposed skin. You can buy a head-covering or a complete suit, including a zippered head covering, called the Bug Baffler (see photo). Pull socks over pants legs and don gloves for full protection.

I love the Bug Baffler suit, but it does have its drawbacks: it’s somewhat claustrophobic with the headgear zipped up; it’s stifling on hot days, and I do feel a bit like the village eccentric if people come by and see me working in the get-up. (Plus, it adds a good 15 pounds if you want a photo of yourself wearing one.)

For biting flies, gnats, and mosquitoes, an array of insect repellents line the store shelves. Entomologists say these products don’t actually repel the insects, but rather confuse them by blocking the receptors they use to detect appropriate hosts for their next blood meal.

The best-tested of the commercially available repellents contain either DEET or Picaradin. Used as directed, they work well, as long as every inch of exposed skin is covered. (Warning: Some people will have an allergic reaction to the repellents themselves, especially DEET.)

Repellents have little effect on deer flies and horse flies, either of which can deliver a powerful bite that swells and itches for days. Jim Dill, the extension entomologist for the University of Maine, suggests trapping these large, annoying flies instead.

“Smear some Tanglefoot on a hardhat or helmet, or even a large 15-ounce plastic drinking cup tied on your head like a party hat. That should trap most of them and keep them from biting you.”

Poison ivy prevention involves learning to recognize the plants and stay away from them.

Before you head out to mow a poison-ivy infested lawn or you plan on bush-whacking an area rife with the toxic weed, cover all areas of exposed skin and wear eye protection. Afterwards, separate clothing that may have come into contact with poison ivy from the rest of your (or other people’s) laundry, and wash it separately in cool water.

Recent research indicates that inceasing carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere is making poison ivy grow bigger and faster, as well as intensifying the potency of its rash-causing oil, called urushiol. So if you’re susceptible, you may find your next poison-ivy rash quite a lot worse than the last.

The American Academy of Dermatology suggests going to an emergency room with a poison ivy rash if

  • You have trouble breathing or swallowing.
  • The rash covers most of your body.
  • You have many rashes or blisters.
  • You experience swelling, especially if an eyelid swells shut.
  • The rash develops anywhere on your face or genitals.
  • Much of your skin itches, or nothing seems to ease the itch.

Swimmer’s itch is caused by the larvae of a flatworm whose life cycle involves both snails and (in most cases) birds, especially the geese and ducks that float so serenely close to shore on ponds and lakes. If your computer has a Flash player, you can see an animated simulation of the organism’s life cycle.

To prevent swimmer’s itch:

  • Avoid swimming in areas where lots of ducks and/or geese congregate (usually because people are feeding them), or near marshy areas that may harbor lots of snails.
  • Slather on the “waterproof” sunscreen before you send your kids into lakes and ponds. It seems to help prevent the flatworms from penetrating the skin.
  • Shower right after swimming, if possible. If you can’t (or even after you do), rub down vigorously all over with a rough towel.
  • Homemade itch remedies

Treating Itches

You’ll find plenty of products on drugstore shelves that promise relief from summer itches, and your healthcare practitioner may offer prescription medications for the most severe cases. But in most cases, home remedies can work as well.

  • My go-to therapy for severe itching, especially a widespread rash of poison ivy or swimmer’s itch: tepid oatmeal baths.
  • For a smaller patch, I find itch relief in my homemade comfrey-plantain salve. It’s easy to make, and I usually make a peanut-butter jarful, enough to last a full year. In addition to quieting an itch, the salve makes a good first-aid remedy for scrapes, sunburns, and chapped hands and lips.
  • I’ve learned that I can get quick, fairly long-lasting relief of a small or large itchy patch, by plunging the area under a faucet running with the hottest possible tap water and leaving it there as long as I can stand it. This produces a few moments of almost unbearable itching, followed by a period of relief that can last an hour or even longer.
  • Dabbing cider vinegar on itchy spots may give temporary relief, as does rubbing the area with a piece of cut lemon or lime. In a pinch, rubbing the itchy area with an ice cube or a cold pack works pretty well, too.

And as for itchy eyes that come along with hay fever and other seasonal allergies, I’ve found life-changing relief from freeze-dried nettle capsules. They also relieve the post-nasal drip, frequent sneezing, and nighttime sinus congestion I’ve suffered from for decades. I couldn’t find them in local stores, so I order mine online.

Stinging nettles in various forms have been used for centuries to treat a variety of common ills, including hay fever. Freeze-drying apparently does something to improve the potency of the nettle leaf for reducing hay fever symptoms. If you decide to give it a try, talk it over with your healthcare professional first.

Why do we itch?
An itch is a message from the brain that something has happened in the itchy area that needs attention. A mosquito bite or a bit of urushiol oil of a poison ivy plant stimulates immune-system cells to release a special protein called histamine, part of the body’s inflammatory response to injury or threat of injury. The histamine binds to specialized nerves that notify the brain of the assault, triggering a cascade of chemicals we interpret as an urge to scratch. Scientists suggest itching was an evolutionary response that would lead to grooming parasites from the body.

For a wonderful long read on the topic, see Atul Gawande’s New Yorker piece, The Itch.

About The Author

Margaret Boyles

Margaret Boyles is a longtime contributor to The Old Farmer’s Almanac. She wrote for UNH Cooperative Extension, managed NH Outside, and contributes to various media covering environmental and human health issues. Read More from Margaret Boyles

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