Scientists: Little evidence bug bite treatments actually work

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CDC Public Health Image Library
mosquito, insect, malaria, stock, 4x3
CDC Public Health Image Library

(CBS News) What's the best cream, lotion or spray to stop that painful itching from bug bites? According to a new review by British scientists, it probably doesn't exist.

The review in the U.K. journal Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin found there's "little evidence" the any bug bite remedies work, despite the fact they're used by millions and doctors often prescribe them based on anecdotal evidence.

In the U.K., and many places in the world, insects searching for a blood meal such as midges, mosquitoes, flies and bedbugs are most likely to cause a reaction because they inject their saliva into humans. This could lead to infection, a flare-up of skin conditions such as eczema or in serious cases anaphylactic shock.

But for most people, these bug bites will cause milder reactions like painful swelling, itching and skin problems caused by scratching the bites. That's why most people reach for a pill, topical cream or lotion following a pesky bug bite. According to the study, the evidence simply doesn't back up their effectiveness.

Specifically, the study found little evidence that antihistamine pills, which are widely recommended to relieve itching, actually quell the problem. The same goes for steroid creams or tablets that are recommended to treat the inflammation from the bites. The review however did show evidence corticosteroids could help people with eczema who react to bug bites.

Creams that contain painkillers or anesthetics - either alone or in combination with an antihistamine or antiseptic - were "marginally effective" but occasionally made allergic reactions worse for some people. Prescription anti-itch creams like crotamiton didn't cut it either.

Then what does work? Mostly waiting, the researchers said. But, a little placebo effect can't hurt.

"For most small insect bites you may not need any treatments," lead researcher David Phizackerley, deputy editor of Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin, told The Telegraph. "But if people wish to try them, these drugs have been used for a long time and they are not likely to be harmful if they are used properly."

The researchers also recommend cleaning the area and using a cold compress and taking an oral painkiller for the pain. If the itch is so bad it keeps you up at night, some antihistamines can make you drowsy. Of course if the bug bite turns into an infection, see a doctor.