Identifying Insect Bites & Stings

It’s a picture-perfect night. You’re sitting outside around the fire, laughing with good friends. But all of a sudden, you can’t stop itching your leg. Upon closer look, you notice you have a couple of red, swollen lumps. The mosquitoes have gotten you.

While most insect bites and stings are harmless, they can lead to serious problems – especially if you’re allergic. So it can be helpful to know the difference between various bites and stings, and when your symptoms require a doctor’s visit.

Why Insects Actually Bite and Sting

There are several reasons an insect might be after you.

Some insects, like mosquitoes and ticks, need to suck blood to stay alive. Others, including spiders or bees, bite or sting when they think they’re in danger and need to protect themselves from a “giant” like yourself.

Individuals who spend more time outside or live in warmer climates also tend to be at great risk for insect stings and bites. Interestingly, however, these aren’t the only factors that make you susceptible.

Scientific evidence indicates that 20% of people are more likely to attract insects such as mosquitoes and, therefore, get a bit more often.

Factors including your odor and genetics play a role. Additionally, pregnant women and beer drinkers tend to be targeted.

Although it would be nice if insects remained outside, they can also find their way into your home.

Nocturnal insects (bedbugs, fleas, spiders, etc.) are particularly bothersome while you’re sleeping and can result in a condition called nocturnal pruritus, or increased skin itchiness at night.

What Symptoms Are Common

Depending on the insect and your individual sensitivity, different symptoms can occur when you’re bit or stung.

Typically, the venom that’s injected into your skin causes small, itchy lumps to develop. Insect bite swelling can happen when these lumps fill with fluid and become inflamed around the bite.

Mild symptoms include:

  • Red bumps
  • Itchiness
  • Mild swelling

In most cases, insect bites and stings will go away on their own within a couple of days. However, if you continue to scratch at an itchy bite, it can lead to bug bites that blister or scar. Infections can also result, causing bug bites that ooze yellow pus, flu-like symptoms, a fever, and swollen glands.

Some insect bites and stings, while rare, can trigger a severe allergic reaction.

You should seek immediate medical attention if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Difficulty breathing, trouble swallowing or speaking
  • Cramps
  • Faintness or dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Rapid heart beat, chest pain, or wheezing
  • Blotchy rash that spreads to other parts of the body
  • Severe swelling, including areas not near your bug bite
  • Severe itching

Types of Bites and Stings

Being able to distinguish between various bites and stings can assist with insect bite and bee sting treatment. It can also help you prevent more annoying bites or stings in the future. While there are hundreds of insects that bite and sting, here are some of the most common among Americans.

Mosquito Bites

Generally found around water, mosquitos aren’t usually an insect you should worry about. Yes, they cause itchy bumps, but they’re typically not harmful.

Sometimes infected mosquitoes can give people diseases; however, these tend to be more serious in underdeveloped areas outside of the U.S.

If you’re spending time by a pool or lake, and you’re worried about mosquitoes, be sure to use an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered insect repellant and cover up with long sleeves and pants. 

Fire Ant Bites

Fire ants aren’t your typical ants. Commonly found in southern states, these ants are known for being fiercely territorial. Should someone disrupt their mounds, they are known to go on the attack with multiple stings.

In most individuals, fire ant venom produces skin irritation that begins as a pinching or burning sensation and turns into an itch that can last for days.

Stings often appear as blisters that look like pimples. To alleviate symptoms, a cold compress or hydrocortisone cream can help.

You can also avoid future stings by using insect repellant and staying clear of fire ant mounds.

If someone is allergic to fire ant venom, they can go into anaphylaxis a few minutes after being stung. It’s essential you call 9-1-1 immediately for assistance.

Bedbug Bites

Like mosquitoes, bedbugs feed on your blood. They’re usually found in crevices of furniture or bedding as well as cracks of walls and floors. These insects are more active at night, so it’s not uncommon to wake up to rows of itchy, red bumps on the upper part of your body if you have bedbugs.

Although they don’t transmit diseases and rarely cause severe allergic reactions, bedbugs do breed often and in large numbers making infestations difficult to get rid of. If washing and drying bedding and clothing at high temperatures doesn’t work to kill off bedbugs, you might need to call in an exterminator.

Flea Bites

Some people assume that only pet owners are susceptible to flea bites. But this isn’t the case. While owning a pet does increase your risk, fleas can enter the home on any fur or fabric. Once inside, their quick breeding habits can make them a nuisance.

Flea bites are characterized by the presence of multiple small bumps clustered together on the lower body. Since they don’t always produce a reaction, they can go unnoticed.

However, people who are allergic can develop a bad reaction, including irritated and painful skin around the bite that sometimes results in hives or a rash.

If your pet is the cause of fleas, you’ll want to consult your vet for flea treatment. Because fleas can survive for more than 100 days without a host, you might also need to call in an exterminator to ensure your house is flea-free. 

Tick Bites

Should you spend a lot of time outside in wooded areas, you need to be aware of ticks. When they bite, these blood-sucking parasites are known to transmit diseases, including Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and tularemia.

It’s important to check for tick bites frequently since the sooner you remove them the less likely it is they’ll transmit diseases.

To avoid tick bites altogether, use insect repellant, wear light-colored protective clothing, and tuck your pants into your socks. It’s important to apply an effective insect repellent before spending any time outdoors, especially during summer travel.

Signs and symptoms of a tick bite might not appear right away. You should seek immediate medical attention if you notice a red bullseye surrounding the bite area or experience other severe allergic reaction symptoms.

Spider Bites

Most spider bites are minor, only causing red bumps that can sometimes become painful and itchy. But some venomous spiders, including the brown recluse spider and black widow spider, can be more dangerous. They can result in severe pain, swelling, sweating, cramping, chills, and body aches.

While it’s difficult to know what type of spider you’ve been bitten by unless you see it, if you notice any concerning symptoms, wash the bite area with soap and water, put a cold compress on it, and then head to the emergency room right away.

Bee, Yellow Jacket, Wasp & Hornet Stings

Bees, like fire ants, become excited when they sense a threat. So, if you’re looking to avoid a painful sting, don’t swat at bees, yellow jackets, wasps, or hornets, or disturb their nests. Most people that are stung will have a red, swollen area that causes discomfort.

However, if you’re allergic, you can experience a localized allergic reaction (swelling, heat, or itching of the skin around the sting) or a more serious systemic allergic reaction (hives, wheezing, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, faintness, or swelling of the face, lips, throat, or tongue).

A person with these symptoms should call 9-1-1 immediately or use an epinephrine auto-injector (EpiPen).

When to Come into GoHealth Urgent Care

Chances are you’ve gotten several insect bites before. That means you should know how your body normally reacts.

If you notice atypical symptoms, or you’re concerned about the possible transmission of disease from bites or stings, stop by the GoHealth Urgent Care center in your neighborhood.

Whether it’s a tick bite or a bee sting, our health care providers know how to treat minor insect bites and stings so you have the peace of mind to get back to enjoying the great outdoors.

Written by Sarah Thebarge, Physician Assistant