Insect bites and stings – when to seek medical help?

Getting a bug bite can be a creepy experience, especially if you don’t know what tiny creature left you with that red, throbbing welt on your skin. Most bug bites and stings are a minor irritation, and you may simply want to relieve the pain, itch, and swelling. But you might be worried it they have the potential for more serious consequences. Some bug bites and stings, like those from fire ants, wasps, hornets, and bees, may cause intense pain or even a serious allergic reaction. Others require immediate emergency medical care, like poisonous spider or scorpion bites.

It all depends on what bit or stung you

Symptoms of bug bites show the cause and severity of the bite or sting. Insects, spiders, and scorpions are capable of causing very painful reactions. For example, most bug bites can cause red bumps with pain, itching, or burning. Some bug bites also feature blisters or welts. It’s very helpful if you know what did the biting or stinging, so you can react adequately.

  • Mosquitoes leave a raised, itchy pink skin bump or in rare cases a severe allergic reaction. Mosquito bites can expose you to serious diseases like West Nile virus or Zika.
  • Tick bites leave a rash that looks like an expanding bull’s-eye. They are usually found in wooded areas and can expose you to Rocky Mountain spotted fever or even Lyme disease.
  • Fire ant bites give burning sensations and pain.
  • Flea bites leave an itchy welt on the skin, often on the ankles and legs. They usually occur in clusters and you can often pick them up when around pets.
  • Bedbugs leave a small bite mark on the skin that is red and itchy or in rare cases causes a serious allergic reaction. The bumps are usually in a pattern of two to three in a row.
  • Spider bites cause minor symptoms like red skin, swelling, and pain at the site or very serious symptoms that need emergency care, depending on the type of spider.
  • Scorpion stings can be more worrisome, even potentially deadly. 

However, most bites are from unidentified bugs. The worst-case scenario is them being immediately dangerous and cause anaphylaxis.

First aid for bites and stings

If you’ve been bitten or stung, move away to prevent further exposure to the bugs and getting more bites or stings. Most bug bites are transmitted directly from the insect and occur outdoors. Two exceptions are bedbugs and lice, which spread through contact with an infected person, a comb, or clothing.

As you move away, try to ease the pain, itching, burning, or swelling. If you’ve been stung, remove the stinger if it is still in your skin. Wash the affected area with soap and water. Apply a cold compress (such as a flannel or cloth cooled with cold water) or an ice pack to any swelling for at least 10 minutes. If you put ice alternate on and off to prevent tissue damage and don’t place the ice directly on the skin. Raise or elevate the affected area if possible, as this can help reduce swelling. Avoid scratching the area, to reduce the risk of infection.

Keep an eye on specific symptoms for bites and stings

Keep an eye out for signs of illness over the first few days following a bug bite. Fever, skin or eyes turning yellow, sweating, or pus oozing from the site of the bite all require a doctor’s consultation that you can do fast and online. The pain, swelling and itchiness can sometimes last a few days. Ask your doctor about medicines that can help, such as painkillers, creams for itching and antihistamines.

You need to talk to a doctor if your symptoms do not start to improve within a few days or are getting worse, you’ve been stung or bitten in your mouth or throat, or near your eyes, if a large area (around 10cm or more patch of skin) around the bite becomes red and swollen, if you have symptoms of a wound infection, such as pus or increasing pain, swelling or redness, you have symptoms of a more widespread infection, such as a high temperature, swollen glands and other flu-like symptoms.

Know when to seek immediate medical treatment

If you experience any involuntary muscle movements after the bite or sting, call 911 immediately. Black widow spider bites can cause muscle spasms.

Another serious concern is a bite that triggers an extreme reaction in a sensitive person, known as anaphylaxis (an overreaction of the immune system) that poses a risk of death without immediate treatment.

Signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis include itching, hives or redness, swelling (other than the site of the sting), shortness of breath, chest pain, dizziness, weakness, and heart palpitations.

If you see or feel any of those symptoms, call 911 immediately. If the person who was bitten has a history of severe allergy and carries epinephrine, it’s time to use it right after you call 911.

bites and stings