What is Skeeter Syndrome?

Skeeter syndrome is a large local reaction after a mosquito bite that can mimic an infection.

What’s your first thought if your child has a large swollen area that is hot, red, and either painful or itchy?

A child with Skeeter syndrome - a bite that quickly got red, hot, and swollen.
A child with Skeeter syndrome – a bite that quickly got red, hot, and swollen. Photo by Vincent Iannelli, MD

You’re probably thinking that this bite is infected, right? It was gone without treatment over about 48 hours.

What is Skeeter Syndrome?

While that is certainly a possibility, if the reaction occurs right after a bite or sting, it is much more likely to be an inflammatory reaction – Skeeter syndrome.

The American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology defines Skeeter syndrome as an inflammatory reaction to mosquito bites.
The term Skeeter syndrome was first used in a report by Simons and Peng in 1999.

Although the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology says that Skeeter syndrome is relatively rare, spend a few minutes with a pediatrician and they will likely tell you that we see it all of the time…

“The large local reactions to mosquito bites that we have designated as skeeter syndrome occur within hours of the bites and are characterized by the cardinal signs of inflammation: swelling (tumor), heat (calor), redness (rubor), and itching/pain (dolor). By inspection and palpation, it is impossible to differentiate between inflammation caused by infection and inflammation caused by an allergic response.”

Skeeter syndrome Case Studies

These reactions can be especially impressive, and scary, for parents if they occur on a child’s eyelid or penis – as loose tissue in these areas can lead to a lot of swelling.

So how can you tell if a child has Skeeter syndrome or cellulitis, an infection that requires antibiotics?

“The reactions were initially misdiagnosed as cellulitis and investigated and treated as such, although by history they developed within hours of a mosquito bite, a time frame in which it would have been highly unlikely for an infection to develop.”

Skeeter syndrome Case Studies

Although cellulitis can mimic or look just like Skeeter syndrome, it is the timing of the reaction, very soon after the bite, that will help you and your pediatrician make an accurate diagnosis. That’s important, because the treatments for Skeeter syndrome and cellulitis are very different.

In general, kids with Skeeter syndrome only require symptomatic care, perhaps an antihistamine and topical steroid cream, while cellulitis is treated with antibiotics.

Are there any other differences between Skeeter syndrome and cellulitis?

While cellulitis will likely continue to worsen, especially if it isn’t treated with antibiotics, you can expect the redness and swelling triggered by Skeeter syndrome to start to get better after two to three days. Keep in mind that many bites and stings do worsen over the first day or two though…

What Causes Skeeter Syndrome?

The large local reaction that occurs with Skeeter syndrome is triggered by antigens in the saliva of the mosquitoes.

While these typically just cause mild local reactions in most of us, others can have severe, delayed reactions, exaggerated local reactions, or very rarely, anaphylactic reactions.

“The children with skeeter syndrome remain healthy, except for recurrent large local inflammatory reactions to mosquito bites.”

Skeeter syndrome Case Studies

So what should you do for your child with Skeeter syndrome?

For one thing, use insect repellents so that they don’t get mosquito bites. And work to control the mosquitoes around your home.

You might also give them an age appropriate dose of a second-generation H1-antihistamine such as cetirizine to prevent or treat the reaction if they do get some bites.

Are mosquitoes the only insects that cause Skeeter syndrome?

By definition, yes.

But we often see these same type of large, local reactions (LLRs) after fire ant bites, bee stings, and other bites and stings.

“There is no clear definition of LLRs. They are generally described as any induration larger than 10cm in diameter around the insect sting. The swelling can occur immediately or 6 to 12 hours after the sting and can gradually increase over 24 to 48 hours. The swelling usually subsides after 3 to 10 days. LLRs represent a late-phase immunoglobulin E (IgE)–associated inflammation.”

Pansare et al on Summer Buzz: All You Need to Know about Insect Sting Allergies

Sweat bees, very small bees, for example, are notorious for “stinging” people around their eyes and causing what looks like periorbital cellulitis, as they like to drink the salt on our sweaty skin.

Is your child’s bite or sting infected?

Just remember, even if the area is hot, red, and swollen, if it got like that within hours of a bite, then it probably isn’t infected.

“The type of clinical reaction determines the risk of allergic reactions to future stings.”

Pansare et al on Summer Buzz: All You Need to Know about Insect Sting Allergies

And also be reassured that children who only have large local reactions are very unlikely to go on to have more severe, anaphylatic type reactions in the future.

More on Insect Bites and Stings

What to Do If a Mosquito Bites Your Child

Mosquito-borne diseases, like dengue, West Nile, and Zika, can certainly be serious, but you likely don’t need to panic your child has gotten one of them every time he or she gets a mosquito bite.

Mosquito bites aren't good, but you don't have to get panicked about them.
Mosquito bites aren’t good, but you usually don’t have to get panicked about them.

Depending on where you live, a mosquito bite can be just a nuisance or it can lead to a life-threatening disease. From Chikungunya virus to Zika, most parents have learned to fear mosquito-borne diseases and because they hear about them so much, fear or even get panicked over mosquito bites.

While it is good to prepared and learn to avoid mosquito bites, you likely shouldn’t be panicked.

But even if your kids aren’t at risk for a mosquito-borne disease, it’s no fun getting bit by mosquitoes. Mosquito bites are itchy, and even when bites don’t get infected, they can leave behind crusted scabs that kids continue to pick at, over and over again.

Still no reason for panic or fear – just good reasons to learn to avoid mosquito bites.

Mosquitoes and Mosquito-Borne Diseases

Diseases that can be spread from the bite of a mosquito can include:

  • Chikungunya – can develop fever and severe and debilitating joint pain 3-7 days after a mosquito bite from Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes in countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Indian and Pacific Oceans, Caribbean countries, and most recently, in Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
  • Dengue – can cause severe flu like symptoms, including fever, severe headache, eye pain, joint and muscle pain, rash, and bleeding, after a mosquito bite in one of at least 100 endemic countries, including many popular tourist destinations in Latin America, Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands. While there are cases in the US, it is important to keep in mind that “nearly all dengue cases reported in the 48 continental states were acquired elsewhere by travelers or immigrants.”
  • Eastern Equine encephalitis – a very rare disease, which is fortunate, as it is one of the most deadly of the mosquito-borne diseases. Transmission is in and around swampy areas, with most cases in Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, and New Jersey.
  • Filariasis – spread by repeated mosquito bites over months to years, this disease is still found in at least 73 countries in parts Asia, Africa, the Western Pacific, and parts of the Caribbean and South America, these parasitic worms can grow and live in our lymph system
  • Japanese encephalitis – you can get a Japanese encephalitis virus infection after being bit by an infected Culex species mosquito in one of 24 countries in South-East Asia and the Western Pacific, especially if you are not vaccinated.
  • La Crosse encephalitis – rare, but can occur in the upper Midwestern and mid-Atlantic and southeastern states and can cause severe disease, including encephalitis, in children.
  • Malaria – although malaria was eliminated in the US in the early 1950s, we still see about 1,700 cases each year in returning travelers. That’s because malaria is a still a big problem around the world, from certain some states in Mexico to most of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
  • St. Louis encephalitis – can occur in eastern and central states, starts with mild symptoms, but can very rarely (between 1 to 12 cases a year) progress to encephalitis (inflammation of the brain).
  • West Nile – has now been found in every state except Alaska and Hawaii, but up to 80% of people don’t develop any symptoms and only 1% develop severe symptoms, with folks over age 60 years most at risk. Although West Nile season peaks in mid-August, cases are usually reported from late summer through early fall.
  • Western Equine encephalitis – rare, but deadly, like Eastern Equine encephalitis, and is found in states west of the Mississippi River
  • Yellow fever – a vaccine-preventable disease, the Yellow fever virus is still found in tropical and subtropical areas in South America and Africa.
  • Zika – is mostly a risk during pregnancy as it can cause serious birth defects, including microcephaly, so there are warnings to avoid high risk areas, which in addition to multiple countries and territories around the world, includes Brownsville, Texas and previously included Miami-Dade County, Florida

Won’t a long list of diseases get parent’s panicked? Only if they skip the part about where the mosquitoes that cause those diseases are active.

What to Do If a Mosquito Bites Your Child

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 Do you know what to do if a mosquito bites your child? Photo by James Gathany

If a mosquito bites your child, don’t panic. There is no reason to run to your pediatrician or the ER and get tested for West Nile or Zika.

That’s not to say a mosquito bite couldn’t send you to the ER, but it would likely only be if your child was severely allergic, with the bite causing an anaphylatic reaction. Fortunately, most bites just leave little red bumps that go away in a few days if you don’t scratch them too much.

So the key treatment after a mosquito bite is classically about relieving the symptoms of itching. As with other itchy rashes, you can do this by:

  • applying an OTC anti-itch cream (hydrocortisone cream or calamine lotion) to the bite
  • taking an oral antihistamine, especially at night
  • applying a prescription steroid cream to help control itching

Also, keep your child’s finger nails short to minimize damage from scratching and wash the areas with soap and water to decrease the risk of secondary infections.

“Where you live, your travel history, and the travel history of your sex partner(s) can affect your chances of getting Zika.”

CDC on Know Your Zika Risk

In general, you should see your pediatrician if you have the symptoms of a mosquito-borne disease and have been in an area with risk of that disease.

Should you worry about dengue, West Nile, or Zika, etc?

  • Does your child live in an area where you can commonly find the mosquitoes that carry any of these diseases?
  • Did your child recently visit an area where you can commonly find the mosquitoes that carry any of these diseases?
  • Is your child a pregnant teen?
  • Is your teen sexually active?
  • Does your child have a chronic medical condition, such as cancer, diabetes, hypertension, or kidney disease?
  • Is your child a first- or second-generation immigrant from a malaria-endemic country who returned to their home country to visit friends and relatives?
  • Was your child at risk for a mosquito-borne disease and skipped taking preventative medications for malaria or skipped getting a Japanese encephalitis vaccine or a Yellow fever vaccine?

Again, see your pediatrician if your child had a mosquito bite and now has the symptoms of a mosquito-borne disease after being in an area with risk of that disease. This is especially important for anyone who is pregnant or with a chronic medical problem, as they might be at higher risk for severe disease. The elderly are more at risk too.

Preventing Mosquito Bites

Of course, whether you are traveling to the tropics or going for a walk in your neighborhood, your best bet is going to be trying to avoid mosquitoes and mosquito bites in the first place.

  • use insect repellent, which can protect your kids from tick bites too
  • wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants when possible
  • get rid of standing water around your home – places where mosquitoes can breed
  • make sure windows and doors have screens or are kept shut to keep mosquitoes out of your home
  • instead of insect repellent, consider using mosquito netting to cover your infant’s stroller or carrier when outside, and especially when in high risk parts of the world, using insecticide treated bed nets

And review travel advisories before planning a trip to see if you need to take any additional precautions to avoid a mosquito-borne disease.

What to Know About Mosquitoes and Mosquito Bites

Mosquito-borne diseases, like dengue, West Nile, and Zika, can certainly be serious, but you likely don’t need to panic your child has gotten one of them every time he or she gets a mosquito bite.

More About Mosquitoes and Mosquito Bites