American Witch Hazel Puts the Bite On Mosquitoes

Mosquito Sculpture
Mosquito Sculpture

When mosquitoes work, they bite and then they sing.

—Malayan Proverb

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Until recently, mosquitoes have never really bothered me. For the most part, they leave me alone. I wish I could say the same for my husband whom the little beasties love, and leave his skin itching with red welts.

There are about 90 known mosquito species in the Pacific Northwest; a number that has likely risen before having finished with this sentence. All mosquitoes can be carriers of disease such as malaria, yellow fever, and West Nile virus. Diseased mosquitoes not only infect people, but also pets, livestock, and wildlife putting them at risk for diseases such as heartworm, and Encephalitis—acute inflammation of the brain. Some mosquito-borne viruses can also cause Encephalitis in people.  That’s a scary thought.  Fortunately though, for most, the mosquito bite is harmless.

In the Pacific Northwest, according to reports, the woodland mosquito (Aedes increpitus) is most common. It can be found from sea level to 6000 feet; and though it inhabits urban areas, it is especially fond of mountainous places. As with all mosquitoes, its life cycle is a primitive and simple one that starts with a bloodthirsty female. (Males only sip plant nectar, and do not bite.) Once the blood meal (necessary for egg development) is satisfied, the female lays her eggs in a pool of water. Any size pool will do, so long as it is calm and stale. Once the eggs are laid, they go through four instar (molting) stages. The eggs hatch into bristly larvae that pupate into tiny, wriggling, shrimp-like creatures that, in 24 to 48 hours, morph into adults. Depending on the species, adult mosquitoes can live up to a week, or as long as several months.

I didn’t even feel the little beastie, which is usually how mosquito bites work. It wasn’t until the following day I noticed the redness on my ankle, and realized that I’d been bitten. Oddly, the bite didn’t itch. Oh sure, I’ve been bitten by mosquitoes before, but the bites were always minor, pea-sized welts that itched like mad for a few days and then disappeared. But this bite was different. The mosquito attacked the front of my right ankle. The welt grew to the size of a quarter that turned a hideous purplish-black. There was swelling, and a small rash developed that traveled from the bite zone three inches up my shin.

Five days later, the bite looked just as ugly as when I discovered it. It was also starting to get a little painful. I researched mosquito bite remedies, and was surprised to find so many—there was everything from mud to oatmeal, to deodorant and toothpaste poultices. Of all the remedies out there, I chose American witch hazel.

American witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is a native, deciduous shrub that grows in moist forests and forest edges throughout the northeastern and southeastern United States. In Canada, it occurs from Ontario to Quebec to Newfoundland, and south to Nova Scotia.

Native Americans recognized the plants healing properties and boiled the bark and leaves to make an effective extract. American Witch hazel has many uses—a tea or tincture of the dried plant (often mixed with other herbs) can be used for a gargle and/or mouthwash to soothe a sore throat, tonsillitis, and sore gums. Oils, creams, salves and extracts applied topically can be used for bruises, swellings, psoriasis, eczema, burns, cracked skin, skin sores, cuts and bleeding; tumors, varicose veins, hemorrhoids, poison ivy rash, insect bites, and for general aches and pains.    

While you won’t find American witch hazel growing in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest, you can find its oils, creams, salves, gels, and extracts at your local supermarket, pharmacy, or readily online.

American Witch Hazel Extract
American Witch Hazel Extract

As for my wicked mosquito bite, I soaked a cotton ball in the extract, applied it to the bite, and almost instantly the discomfort stopped. Several hours later, the welt, the rash, and the swelling had reduced considerably. By morning, both the rash and swelling were gone. As for the big ugly welt, it shrunk to the size of a dime. Wow! I applied a second dose, and two days later, the welt was gone.

No doubt, my Mohawk ancestors (on my mother’s side) kept American witch hazel in their medicine bundles just as my German pioneer grandmother’s (on my father’s side) kept the extract in their medicine chests. While I don’t recall the use of it during my childhood, I’m sure grandmother kept a bottle of extract next to the bottle of the much-dreaded iodine. So, just as my Mohawk ancestors kept American witch hazel in their medicine bundles, I too keep it in my First Aid kit at home, and for when I’m on the trail.

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Copyright 2014.  All rights reserved. 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this article, and thank you for stopping by.

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Mosquito Buffet by Annie Ink
Mosquito Buffet by Annie Ink

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