Soothing Bug Bites: Why the Pharmacy Fix Falls Flat

It’s that time of year again. The weather is warm, the days are longer, and the bugs are out in full force. If you’re like most people, you’ve probably experienced the miserable itching sensation that comes with a bug bite. You may have even spent countless dollars on various over-the-counter (OTC) anti-itch creams, gels, and ointments, hoping they’d provide relief. Unfortunately, it turns out many of these treatments aren’t as effective as you might think.

Are Over-the-Counter Anti-Itch Treatments Worth It?

A comprehensive review published in the Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin found that many OTC treatments for insect bites are largely ineffective at relieving itching. The review examined a wide range of medications, including steroid creams and tablets, topical anesthetics like lidocaine and benzocaine, antihistamines, and antiseptics. Surprisingly, these treatments were found to be quite ineffective at providing relief from bug bite symptoms like itching, swelling, and pain.

In addition to being mostly useless, some of these products can cause side effects. For example, antihistamines can cause drowsiness, nausea, and impaired coordination. Topical anesthetics can sometimes lead to convulsions or even seizures in rare cases. With these risks and the lack of effectiveness, it’s worth reconsidering your approach to treating bug bites.

A Simple and Free Alternative

So what should you do instead? The review suggests that a cold, wet washcloth can be just as, if not more effective at soothing bug bite symptoms. Applying a cool cloth to the affected area is easy, free, and devoid of side effects. This straightforward remedy is actually backed by science, as cold temperatures can help minimize the itching sensation by temporarily numbing the skin and reducing inflammation.

Preventing Insect Bites

In addition to the cold compress remedy, you should also focus on preventing insect bites in the first place. After all, the best way to get relief from a bug bite is to avoid the bite altogether. Here are a few tips to help protect yourself from insect bites this summer:

  1. Use insect repellent: Apply a repellent containing DEET, picaridin, or other effective ingredients to exposed skin and clothing. Be sure to follow the instructions on the product label for best results. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides additional information on using insect repellents.

  2. Wear protective clothing: When spending time outdoors, wear long sleeves, pants, and socks to minimize skin exposure. You can also treat your clothing with insecticides like permethrin for added protection.

  3. Avoid peak bug hours: Insects like mosquitoes and gnats are most active during the early morning and evening, so try to stay indoors during these times if possible. If you must be outside, take extra precautions to protect yourself.

  4. Eliminate standing water: Mosquitoes can breed in standing water, so be sure to eliminate sources of stagnant water around your home. This includes bird baths, flower pots, gutters, and other areas where water can collect.

By implementing these preventative measures and using the simple cold cloth remedy for bug bites, you can save yourself the frustration and wasted money on ineffective OTC treatments.

When to Seek Medical Help

While most insect bites are harmless and can be treated with the above-mentioned methods, there are some situations where medical attention may be required. Rarely, insect bites can lead to complications like infection, eczema flare-ups, or life-threatening anaphylactic shock. If you experience symptoms such as fever, difficulty breathing, rapid heartbeat, or severe pain and swelling, seek professional medical care immediately.


With the prevalence of insect bites during the warmer months, it’s essential to be prepared and informed about effective treatment options. Despite the allure of OTC anti-itch medications, research has shown that many of these products are largely ineffective and can even cause negative side effects. Opting for simple home remedies like a cold, wet washcloth and taking preventive measures to avoid bug bites in the first place will lead to a less itchy and more enjoyable summer season.