Are you a mosquito magnet? The science behind why you may get bitten more often than others

Denise Dador Image
Tuesday, May 23, 2023
Mosquito magnet? The science behind why you get bitten more often
It's mosquito season and if the bugs seem to like you more than others, there's a scientific reason behind it.

Some people feel like they are so-called "mosquito magnets" because they seem to get more than their fair share of bites.

There are many popular theories for why someone might be a preferred snack, including blood type, blood sugar level or simply being a woman or a child. Yet there is little credible data to support most of these theories.

However, there are some definite factors, backed by science, that may explain why some people might just be more susceptible to getting bitten.

Mosquitoes are one of the few insects to evolve with a taste for human blood, which makes for an incredibly protein-rich meal.

"When they bite, it's uncomfortable cause there's an irritation associated with the biting of the mosquito. It's actually injecting saliva into your body," said Michael Roe, Ph.D., who is a professor of entomology at North Carolina State University.

Each year, mosquitoes infect about 400 million humans with the dengue virus. And in addition to dengue, they transmit viruses such as yellow fever, Zika virus, and chikungunya.

Besides tracking our carbon dioxide exhalations, body heat and odor, scientists say certain people are more attractive to mosquitoes than others because they have higher levels of carboxylic acids on their skin. The acid is produced through sebum, an oily layer that coats a person's skin.

Roe and his colleagues are working on a mosquito repellant cloth to prevent those people, and others, from getting infected by the pesky insects.

"We have an amazing scientist on our team (who's) a mathematician. He can mathematically define all those perameters, combining them to describe what a cloth would have to be like to prevent mosquitoes from biting," he said.

Scientists at Rockefeller University believe the solution might be to manipulate our skin microbiomes.

What is unclear is whether mosquitoes use these compounds exclusively to search out humans or if a combination of scents might make a particular individual a "better meal."

A team of researchers led by Dr. Anandasankar Ray at UC Riverside, set out to determine the relationship between receptors required for attraction to skin odor.

For example, ethyl pyruvate, which has a fruity smell and is approved as a flavor agent in food, blocked attraction of mosquitoes to a human hand. But cyclopentanone, which is minty-smelling and is approved as a flavor and fragrance agent, attracted mosquitoes to a baited trap as effectively as carbon dioxide.

"These potentially affordable 'mask' and 'pull' strategies could be used in a complementary manner, offering an ideal solution and much needed relief to people in Africa, Asia and South America - wherever mosquito-borne diseases are endemic," Ray said.

Understanding the chemicals behind mosquito attraction could one day lead to a topical cream.

Until then, the CDC and the EPA say bug sprays containing DEET are the gold standard, but other products with picaridin and oil of lemon eucalyptus have also been highly rated for repelling mosquitoes.