Whether you’re in the water, on a mountain trail, or in your backyard, wildlife you encounter have ways of protecting themselves and their territory. One method of defense involves biting or stinging. The wounds can range in severity from the bite of a shark or venomous snake to the sting of a wasp or yellow jacket to the annoying itchy bump resulting from a mosquito bite. Regardless of how severe the attack, a variety of complications can result if the wound is left untreated or not treated properly.
Insects such as bees, ants, fleas, flies, mosquitoes, wasps and arachnids such as spiders may bite or sting when provoked or distressed. The initial contact may be painful, and it is often followed by an allergic reaction to venom deposited into your skin through the insect’s mouth or stinger. Most bites and stings cause nothing more than minor discomfort, but some encounters can be deadly, especially if you have severe allergies to the insect venom.
Prevention is certainly the best medicine, so knowing how to recognize and avoid biting and stinging animals or insects is the best way to stay safe.
The animals you should recognize and understand depend very much on where you live or where you’re visiting. Different regions of the United States are home to many of these creatures. Season also matters: mosquitoes and stinging bees and wasps, for example, tend to come out in force during the summer.
Types of Biting and Stinging Animals
Although not comprehensive, here are some animals and bugs that can be dangerous.
Pit vipers and coral snakes are two types of poisonous snakes that are indigenous to the United States. Pit vipers account for 98% of venomous snake bites in the U.S. The three types of pit vipers include:
- cottonmouths (water moccasins)
Biting and Stinging Insects, Arachnids, and Other Bugs
Bugs that Bite
Many bugs bite, but only a few do so intentionally. Most bites are relatively harmless, leaving just an itchy patch of skin behind. Some, bites however, can carry disease; Lyme disease, for example, is typically carried by ticks. Intentional biters include:
- chigger mites
- scabies mites
- bed bugs
- head lice
- pubic lice
- horse flies
- black flies
- bed bugs
Many larger insects and other bugs won’t seek you out, but will bite if handled.
These include many types of spiders, some of which have poisonous fangs. Poisonous spiders found in the U.S. include:
- brown recluse spider
- black widow spider
- hobo spider
- grass spider
- mouse spider
- black house spider
- wolf spider
Insects will sting humans only as a defensive move against a perceived threat. Typically, a bee or stinging ant’s stinger will be accompanied by a small amount of venom that, when injected into your skin, causes most of the itching and pain associated with sting, as well as any allergic reaction. Common stinging insects in the U.S. include:
- paper wasps (hornets)
- yellow jackets
- fire ants
Scorpions have a well-deserved reputation for stinging. Many species of scorpions have barbed tails equipped with poison; 25 such species worldwide have poison capable of killing a human being. The most venomous species of scorpion native to the United States is the Arizona bark scorpion.
Dangerous Water Creatures
From the deepest seas to shallow inland ponds, the waters of the earth are teeming with unique creatures, many of which are dangerous to humans. These range from aggressive animals that bite to poisonous fishes and invertebrates like jellyfish that can sting to crabs that are poisonous to eat.
Perhaps the most feared sea-dweller is the shark. However, there are hundreds of species of sharks, many of which are not at all dangerous to human beings. Only a select few have been known to attack humans, and even these shark attacks are few and far between:
- great white shark
- tiger shark
- bull shark
- mako shark
- oceanic white tip shark
Other water-dwelling animals that may bite if provoked include barracuda, crocodiles, alligators, caimans, sea lions, moray eels, octopus, and squids.
Some fish have venomous fins or other body parts:
Jellyfish and Other Invertebrates
Many jellyfish are venomous, including the very dangerous Chironex(AKA deadly box jellyfish) and the Portuguese man-of-war. Other venomous invertebrates include fire coral, sea anemones, stinging seaweed, and sea urchins.
Other Venomous Water Creatures
Other types of water-dwelling animals that have the ability to bite or sting include:
- blue-ringed octopus
- cone shell
- crown of thorns starfish
- sea snake
- sea worm
Larger Land Creatures—Both Wild and Domestic
Many wild large land-dwellers, such as bears and large cats, can be dangerous. Even less fearsome-seeming animals, such as deer, can be dangerous in certain situations.
Large land animals are rarely spotted in the wild, and are unlikely to attack unless the animal is provoked or feels threatened. If you come across a large mammal or other animal, do not approach, feed, or follow it. Although an animal may look tame and friendly, if it is wild, it can act unpredictably.
Closer to home, bites, scratches and other injuries suffered at the hands of domesticated animals like cats and dogs are not uncommon. For example, an estimated 4.7 million dog bites occur every year in the United States. Luckily, these are rarely dangerous. Nevertheless, cat and dog bites can become infected (animal saliva can carry harmful bacteria), so if a household animal bites you, wash and disinfect the wound carefully and visit a doctor as soon as possible.
What Causes Reactions to Bites and Stings?
The venom injected into your body from the bite or sting of an insect will cause your immune system to respond. Often, your body’s immediate response will include redness and swelling at the site of the bite or sting. Minor delayed reactions include itching and soreness. If you are very sensitive to an insect’s venom, bites and stings can cause a potentially fatal condition called anaphylactic shock, which can cause the throat to tighten and make breathing difficult. Some bites and stings may cause illnesses when venom contains infectious agents.
Who Is at Risk for Bites and Stings?
Anyone can be bitten or stung by an insect, and bites and stings are very common. You are at greater risk if you spend a lot of time outdoors, especially in rural or wooded locations. Children and the elderly may have more severe reactions to bites and stings.
What Are the Symptoms of a Bad Reaction to Bites and Stings?
If you are bitten or stung, you may see or feel the insect on your skin during the attack. Some victims do not notice the insect and are not aware of a bite or sting until one or more of the following symptoms emerge:
- swelling, which may be concentrated in the affected area or may spread throughout the body
- redness or rash
- pain in the affected area or muscular pain
- heat on and around the site of the bite or sting
- numbness or tingling in the affected area
Symptoms of a severe reaction requiring immediate medical treatment include:
- difficulty breathing
- nausea or vomiting
- muscle spasms
- rapid heartbeat
- swelling of the lips and throat
- loss of consciousness
If you feel ill or experience flu-like symptoms in the days following an insect bite, see your physician for tests to rule out infections or diseases you may have contracted from the insect.
Diagnosing Bites and Stings
Many victims are aware they are suffering a bite or sting because they witness it or see the insect shortly after the attack. Although you shouldn’t further provoke an attacking insect, try to preserve the insect if it dies following the incident. Its identity may help your physician to properly diagnose your symptoms. This is especially important for a spider bite, as some species have dangerously potent venom.
Treating Bites and Stings
When your reaction is mild, the majority of bites and stings can be treated at home. Remove the stinger if it is lodged in your skin, wash the affected area, and apply an ice pack to reduce pain and swelling. Topical anti-itch creams and oral pain relievers and antihistamines may be used to combat uncomfortable symptoms.
Contact emergency services immediately if symptoms of a severe reaction are present. First aid instructions while waiting for paramedics to arrive include loosening the victim’s clothing, laying the victim on his or her side, and CPR if breathing stops.
If you believe a spider of the black widow or brown recluse variety has bitten you, seek emergency medical treatment even if symptoms seem minor or haven’t emerged. Scorpion bites should also be treated in the emergency room, regardless of symptoms.
What Is to Be Expected in the Long Term?
Most bites and stings heal by themselves after several days of mild discomfort. Monitor the affected site for signs of infection. Contact your physician if the wound appears to be getting worse or has not healed after several weeks.
Bites and stings that cause severe reactions can be fatal if not treated immediately. Once you have experienced a severe reaction, your physician will likely prescribe an auto injector of epinephrine, a hormone that can prevent anaphylactic shock. Carry it with you at all times to diffuse the reaction immediately following another bite or sting.
Tips to Avoid Bites and Stings
Use caution when near nests or hives containing aggressive insects. If removal is desired, hire professions who have the proper safety equipment.
When spending time outside, you can take preventative measures, including:
- wearing hats and clothing that provide full coverage
- wearing neutral colors and avoiding floral patterns.
- avoiding perfume and scented lotion
- keeping food and drinks covered
- using citronella candles or insect repellent spray