Whether you’re in the water, on a mountain
trail, or in your backyard, the wildlife you encounter have ways of protecting
themselves and their territory.
Insects such as bees, ants, fleas, flies,
mosquitoes, wasps, and arachnids may bite or sting.
The initial contact of a bite may be painful.
It’s often followed by an allergic reaction to venom deposited into your skin
through the insect’s mouth or stinger. Most bites and stings trigger nothing
more than minor discomfort, but some encounters can be deadly, especially if
you have severe allergies to the insect venom.
Prevention is 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. For example, mosquitoes
and stinging bees and wasps tend to come out in full force during the summer.
Types of biting and stinging insects
Here are some bugs that can be dangerous.
Many bugs bite, but only a few do so
intentionally. Most bites are relatively harmless, leaving just an itchy patch
of skin behind. However, some bites can carry disease.
Intentional biters include ticks, mites, bed
bugs, fleas, lice, flies, and mosquitoes.
Some spiders have poisonous fangs. Poisonous
spiders found in the United States include:
- brown recluse spider
- black widow spider
- hobo spider
- grass 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. When injected into your skin,
the venom causes most of the itching and pain associated with the sting. It can
also cause an allergic reaction.
Common stinging insects in the United States
- yellow jackets
- fire ants
Scorpions have a reputation for stinging.
Many species of scorpions have barbed tails equipped with poison. Some scorpion
species have poison capable of killing a human being. The most venomous species
of scorpion native to the United States is the Arizona bark scorpion.
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’re very sensitive to an insect’s
venom, bites and stings can cause a potentially fatal condition called
anaphylactic shock. This can cause the throat to tighten and make breathing
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’re at greater risk if you spend a lot
of time outdoors, especially in rural or wooded locations. Children and older
adults may have more severe reactions to bites and stings.
Some people seem to be more susceptible to
insect bites than others. Research has suggested that your likelihood of getting bitten by certain
insects may even be genetic. These studies have also shown that people who are drinking alcohol outside are more likely to
get bitten by mosquitoes. Women who are pregnant are more vulnerable to bug
bites because they produce a greater-than-normal amount of exhaled carbon
There are some parts of the world where
getting an insect bite or sting carries a greater risk than in others. Diseases
that are spread by mosquitos, such as malaria, Zika virus, and the West Nile
virus, are more prevalent in moist climates. If you are traveling to a country
that has been affected by insect-spread disease, be aware of the higher risks
associated with bug bites.
What are the symptoms of a bad reaction to bites and stings?
If you’re bitten or stung, you may see or
feel the insect on your skin during the attack. Some people don’t notice the
insect and may not be aware of a bite or sting until one or more of the
following symptoms emerge:
- redness or rash
- pain in the affected area or in the muscles
- heat on and around the site of the bite or sting
- numbness or tingling in the affected area
Diagnosing bites and stings
Many people are aware they’ve been bitten or
stung because they 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 bite or sting. Its identity may help your doctor to properly
diagnose your symptoms. This is especially important for a spider bite, as some
species have dangerously potent venom.
You can self-diagnose most bug bites based on
how they look and feel. Red skin, swelling, and soreness are typical of spider
bites. Smaller lumps and itchy skin are the symptoms of mosquito bites.
If you feel a stinging sensation, you may be
able to determine what stung you by remembering one thing. Bees leave their
stinger in your skin attached to a small sac of venom, while wasps do not. This
means that a single wasp can sting you multiple times.
Treating bites and stings
The majority of bites and stings can be
treated at home, especially if your reaction is mild. Remove the stinger if
it’s 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. You may also want
to consider applying a thin paste of baking soda and water to the sting to calm
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 them
on their side, and performing 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 also should be treated
in the emergency room, regardless of symptoms.
When to call a doctor
Sometimes an insect bite or sting can result
in a serious reaction. Call a doctor immediately if you experience any of the
following after a suspected sting or bite:
- difficulty breathing
- rapid heartbeat
There are some types of insect and arachnid
bites that require immediate medical attention. Scorpions, brown recluse
spiders, black widow spiders, and any kind of tick are insects that fall into
the “emergency care” category if you get bitten. According
to the Academy of American Pediatrics, if your
child is under age 5, take extra precaution when treating bug bites and stings.
Serious conditions such as the West Nile
Virus, the Zika virus, and Lyme disease can be transmitted through insect
bites. If you feel ill or experience flu-like symptoms in the days following an
insect bite, see your doctor for tests to rule out infections or diseases you
may have contracted from the insect.
Tips to avoid bites and stings
Use caution when near nests or hives
containing aggressive insects. Hire professionals who have the proper safety
equipment to remove a nest or hive.
When spending time outside, you can take
preventive measures, such as:
- Wear hats and light, breathable
clothing that provides full coverage to your skin whenever possible.
- Avoid perfumes and scented
lotions, especially citrus or “fruity” scents. These tend to attract stinging
- Keep food and drinks covered when
enjoying the outdoors so that fruit flies and black flies will be less likely
to hover close to you.
- Citronella candles or insect
repellant spray keep bugs out of your immediate vicinity.
Most bites and stings heal by themselves after
several days of mild discomfort. Monitor the affected site for signs of
infection. Contact your doctor if the wound appears to be getting worse or
hasn’t healed after several weeks.
Bites and stings that cause severe reactions
can be fatal if they aren’t treated immediately. Once you have experienced a
severe reaction, your doctor 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 a bite or sting.