Itching and Scratching

Plenty of things you encounter both at home and away can cause irritation and itching: bites and stings from insects as well as an inadvertent brush against a toxic plant. Other times, itchy skin is the result of an allergic reaction. Most often, it's just a case of bad luck: being near the wrong bug (or bush) at the wrong time.

Poison ivy, oak, and sumac contain oils that can cause an itchy, red rash, often involving blisters (you can even have a reaction if you touch something — an article of clothing, even your dog's fur — that's touched the plant, or if you inhale smoke from a fire that contains it).

Several species of bugs — including bees, wasps, and hornets — can sting you, leaving behind venom and sometimes a stinger, plus a welt that's itchy or painful or both. Biting insects, such as ticks, spiders, fleas, and mosquitoes, like to take away something (usually a bit of blood), and leave a bit of saliva that creates a reaction (usually itching and inflammation) in return.

Several popular culinary herbs and spices contain chemicals with serious bug-repellant powers. Recent studies have shown that extracts of cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum, C. aromaticum), clove (Syzygium aromaticum), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), and ginger (Zingiber officinale) can keep mosquitoes, ticks, and other insects away.

Treatment Options

Conventional medicine typically treats these problems with OTC anesthetics and anti-inflammatory/anti-itch medicines such as corticosteroids and antihistamines. Herbal alternatives include these:

Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea)

Used topically, echinacea is a mild anesthetic and antiseptic that fights infection and speeds healing. In the lab, it's been shown to reduce inflammation and swelling better than a topical NSAID.

Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus)

Eucalyptus oil works as a topical antiseptic and painkiller; it can relieve pain and itching, speed healing, and prevent infection.

Sangre de Grado (Croton lechleri)

This South American tree is known for its anti-inflammatory and wound-healing prowess. Research shows it can relieve the pain and itching caused by all sorts of insects-including fire ants, wasps, and bees — and poisonous plants. It's also good for treating cuts and scrapes.

Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)

A powerful astringent, witch hazel can dry up “weeping” rashes and create a virtual bandage over the area by sealing cell membranes and reducing the permeability of surrounding blood vessels. Research shows that it performs better than hydrogen peroxide in helping skin heal (it's also a strong antimicrobial and antioxidant).

Tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia)

Tea tree oil reduces histamine-induced (allergic) inflammation of the skin and can decrease the welt left from insect bites and stings. It also has antibacterial properties to help prevent infection.

Conventional insect repellants use chemicals such as N-diethyl-meta-toluamide, better known as DEET, to keep biting insects at bay. Products that contain the chemical permethrin, which is both a repellant and an insecticide, can be applied to your clothing and personal items.

DEET and permethrin can be toxic to people as well as insects, and research shows that they might cause neurological problems and most definitely cause skin reactions (permethrin is designed to be used on clothing only — not skin — and many experts advise saving the DEET for your clothes, too). Herbal alternatives include these:

Camphor (Cinnamomum camphora)

Camphor (the herb) contains camphor (the chemical), which is a natural insect repellant. It's also an effective pain and itch reliever (approved by the FDA), so you can also use it to treat bites you've already got.

Lemon eucalyptus (Eucalyptus citriodora, Corymbia citriodora)

The oil from this Australian native is registered with the Food and Drug Administration and was recently approved as an insect repellant by the Centers for Disease Control.

Neem (Azadirachta indica)

Topical neem preparations have been shown to repel several different species of mosquitoes.

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