Matt: Why do bug bites itch? And if our reflex is to scratch it, why doesn’t scratching stop itching? Sometimes it seems to make it worse and it just itches forever. — Bitten Barb, via email
This question has been hanging around since San Diego’s mosquito months, obviously. We forgot about it until recently, when the elves started wiggling and hopping around, scratching like crazy. See, this is high season for them to make a little extra dough, what with Santas all over the place, opening great temp opportunities as workshop sidekicks. We haven’t added it all up, but it might even beat March as elf income time, unless you count all the free green beer. Every Christmas-elf gig seems to require a wool costume, which drives the research elves crazy with itching. Anyway, the elf agony reminded me to pull the itchy and scratchy question out of the pile.
Uncomfortable Barb starts out with bites, not wool. So let’s deal with that first. When you are bitten by a bug, it will inject chemicals into the site that keep our blood from clotting and messing up their meal. These chemicals are the first itch triggers. When our bodies detect the stuff, they send their own chemical to fight it: histamines. This is good news and bad news. Histamines bring blood to the area to help fight the invaders. But they also cause the bite area to become red, swollen, and hot. Swelling presses on our itch-dedicated nerve endings, and our brains tell us to scratch. Unfortunately, scratching an itch only makes things worse, alerting more histamines to swim in, causing even more itching. All in all, not a very good plan.
It will take some sort of medicine to end the itch-scratch cycle. Maybe an antihistamine pill, maybe a steroid skin cream. Or maybe try this: dig a fingernail hard into the bite spot. This will often stop the itching without bringing in more histamine.
But what about the elf-type itching? Santa’s-workshop-wool-suit-type itching compared to the mosquito-bite itch. That’s a whole different kettle of candy canes. When the wool rubs back and forth on sensitive elf skin, it stimulates a different set of nerve endings even though our brains send back the same message it sends for mosquito bites: scratch. There’s no surefire way to end the elves’ agony. Grandma can only stock up on backscratchers for the season and hope that helps.
Dear Matt: Settle a bet between me and my boyfriend. I say my lips have gotten pale from the use of lipstick over the years. He says my lips are pale because I have fair skin, that it’s all about pigmentation. — Colleen, via email
Your lips are disappearing? You used to have lips, but now they’re leaving your face? Not knowing quite where to start with this one, the elves decided to examine Grandma Alice under a bright light, which is much more difficult than it sounds. She still has plenty of fight in her. Anyway, once we got Grandma’s head positioned and wiped off the Revlon “Fire Engine Red,” we were shocked to discover that she’s losing her lips too! Other features appeared intact, but there was clear evidence of once-full, luscious, pouty peroral protuberances now barely distinguishable from her nose or chin! Grandma retreated to her room in her usual state of boo-hooness, and we had to fix our own dinner that night. But we were too stunned to eat.
I won’t even ask how you decided lipstick could suck color from your skin. Boyfriend is a bit closer to the mark, but still no bull’s-eye. Lips consist of a very, very thin, translucent layer of skin covering mucous membrane, nerve endings, and blood vessels, with our mouth muscles sandwiched inside. Depending on the darkness of your skin, there is more or less melanin pigmentation in our lips. In the case of most “white” or fair-skinned people, there’s virtually no melanin, and lip color comes from the visible blood vessels. So if we understand your situation clearly — if you once definitely had lips but are now approaching liplessness — you’re only suffering from a common symptom of aging: reduced blood flow in the mouthal area. You can also expect a loss of collagen and muscle tone in this lipal region, which will make them wrinkly and narrow, and they’ll sort of retreat back into your mouth. Glad we could be of service.