Identifying insect bites & stings

We’ve all been there in the summertime. 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 how to identify insect bites, and when your symptoms require a doctor’s visit.

Types of bites and stings and how to identify them

Being able to identify insect bites is the first step to properly treating them. It can also help you prevent more annoying bites or stings in the future. While there are hundreds of insects that bite and sting, below are some of the most common insect bites to identify among Americans.

Mosquito bites

Generally found around bodies of stagnant water, mosquitos aren’t usually an insect you should worry about in terms of severe health outcomes. They cause itchy raised red bumps, which usually go away within a few days depending on how much you’re scratching them. 

The majority of mosquito bites aren’t typically harmful. Still, there has been an increase in illnesses transmitted by mosquitos, such as West Nile Virus. This is the most common mosquito-borne illness in the United States, but fortunately, most infected people experience minimal symptoms. 

Mosquitos can also carry Zika virus, Chikungunya virus, dengue, and malaria. However, these are more common in areas outside of the United States.

There are no vaccines to help prevent mosquito-borne illnesses, so it’s important to practice other methods of prevention. If you’re spending time by water, 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 a lasting itch. Stings often appear as blisters that look like pimples. They will fill with pus-like fluid and disappear within 7-10 days.

To alleviate symptoms, a cold compress or hydrocortisone cream can help. However, 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 if symptoms like dizziness, a drop in blood pressure, or loss of consciousness are present.

To prevent fire ant stings, stay clear of fire ant mounds and use insect repellent.

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. 

Before bedbugs bite, they transmit a small amount of anesthetic so you won’t feel it. Their bites appear red and swollen with a dark spot at the center. These insects are more active at night, so it’s not uncommon to wake up to rows of itchy, red bumps on the exposed parts of your body if you have bedbugs.

Many people who get bit by a bedbug never develop a reaction. 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, mite, and chigger bites

Fleas, mites, and chiggers are microscopic bugs. Their bites aren’t dangerous, but they can be extremely itchy. Fleas generally live on floors and rugs, often in homes that have pets. Mites are more common in crowded living situations, and chiggers are found in grasslands, forests, lakes, and streams. 

Bites from these insects generally cause raised itchy bumps that may be painful. However, people who are allergic can develop a bad reaction, including irritated and painful skin that sometimes results in hives or a rash. 

Flea bites tend to be clustered in small groups, often in areas where the skin is tighter around the skin. Mite bites can appear as small, pimple-like bumps, and burrows may be present as small wavy lines. Chigger bites are more likely diagnosed if you spend a lot of time outdoors. 

If you think you have a flea bite and you own a pet, it’s best 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. 

Lice bites

Lice are tiny parasites that live on the skin. While they’re largely harmless to your overall health, they cause extreme itchiness from their movement and tiny bites. The most common types of lice are head lice, body lice, and pubic lice. 

Lice lay around six eggs per day each, which are called nits. Nit shells can last in the hair for up to six months. 

The primary way lice are transmitted is through sharing objects like pillows, brushes, towels, and hair accessories, as well as head-to-head contact with someone else who has lice. Prevent pubic and body lice by practicing safe sex, good housekeeping and personal hygiene. 

Treatment for lice depends on what type you have and where it came from. These may require spraying furniture, washing towels and bedsheets with hot soapy water, insecticidal lotions, or using shampoos with pediculicides. It’s best to bag up clothing and bedsheets that may be affected for several days before washing to kill any lice. After shampooing head lice, use a nit comb to remove any remaining eggs.

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. Ticks like wooded areas, tall grasses, leaves, and brush. 

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. Some tick bites may also cause a rash.

If you have a tick bite, the tick may still be attached and burrowed into your skin. If this is the case, it’s best to use tick tweezers to grab it close to its head and gently remove it. Avoid crushing it or touching it with your fingers, and then wash your skin thoroughly. Bring the tick to your healthcare provider so they can help identify the type and determine whether it’s carrying a disease.

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. Among the most susceptible to spider bites are children, people who spend a lot of time outdoors, and machine operators.

Some potential side effects of more dangerous spiders can include difficulty breathing, swollen eyes, nausea and vomiting, profuse sweating, fatigue, blisters that produce pus, severe headaches, or hardened skin around the bite. 

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 who are stung will have a red, swollen area that causes discomfort. A local antihistamine ointment can help reduce itchiness and swelling.

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).

Kissing bug bites

If you live in the southern or western United States, you may be at risk of being bitten — not kissed — by a kissing bug. These are blood-sucking insects that hide during the day.

These bugs are most active at night. While most bites are harmless, some may cause allergic reactions. Very rarely, kissing bug bites can lead to heart disease or even sudden death. 

Most of the time, kissing bug bites doesn’t hurt. They can bite anywhere on the body and can be difficult to differentiate from other types of blood-sucking bug bites. Treatment can include using an ice pack, steroid creams, or over-the-counter antihistamines, but severe symptoms — like flu, nausea, or swollen eyelids — require emergency care.

Common symptoms of bug bites

When you identify insect bites, there may also be unique symptoms associated with them. 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 heartbeat, 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

Visit urgent care to treat bug bites

If you notice atypical symptoms, or you’re concerned about the possible transmission of disease from bites or stings, urgent care is warranted for the identification of insect bites and treatment.

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

If you need help assessing and treating bug bites, come see the experts at one of our urgent care locations. You can walk in without an appointment, or save your spot online. We are open 365 days and during holidays. We’ll have you back to feeling better in no time.

Written by Sarah Thebarge, Physician Assistant