CallonDoc Focus: Identifying and Treating Bug Bites

June is the official start of summer, and with it comes more time spent time outside. As summer heat sets in, it not only marks the arrival of scorching temperatures but is also the much-anticipated break for students nationwide, making it the ideal time for families to explore the abundance of local, state, and national parks that are among the most sought-after destinations. 

While you're preparing for outdoor activities, it's also important to be well-prepared for the bug bites and stings that may accompany your plans. While some bug bites or stings may be a nuisance, others can prompt allergic or unexpected reactions that can be irritating or painful. Knowing what to look out for and what to do when you have an encounter can help alleviate any symptoms you may experience quickly. Here we share an overview of common bugs and what to expect if you or a loved one does experience an insect bite. Additionally, here are some tips by our dermatologist to help keep you safe during the summertime!


How do I identify a bug bite on my skin?

Bed bugs are small insects of the Cimicidae family that infest homes, apartments, hotels, and wherever people sleep to feed on human blood. They can easily get near people by hitchhiking on clothing, luggage, or used furniture. Bed bugs are attracted to people primarily by the carbon dioxide we exhale, body heat, and certain chemical signals like sweat and body odor. Their bites are painless, resulting in small, itchy red bumps on the skin, often in clusters or lines. While the reactions to bed bug bites vary, they are generally mild, and some people may not even notice them. 

While there are multiple types of bees, honey bees found in America are of the Apidae family due to the hairs that cover their bodies, the pollen basket on their hind legs, and the traditional colors of their exterior (black, yellow, brown, and orange). While the insect has evolved a stinger that is particularly painful to mammals, the act of stinging causes almost immediate death to each bee and is only considered when they are individually confused or agitated. Bees will also aggressively pursue those that physically threaten their hive. When it comes to interacting with people, bees typically won’t unless they smell something fragrant or see bright colors on a person. Additionally, bees enjoy human sweat as it tastes sweet to them. 

Chiggers are tiny, reddish-orange mites that are commonly found in grassy and wooded areas. Biting humans, cats, and dogs primarily during their larval stage, the mites do not bite and seek different prey when reaching adulthood. A part of the Trombiculid family of insects, the defining feature of chiggers is that they bite during their larval stage and cause what’s called trombiculiasis. Trombiculiasis is the scientific name for chigger bites, being defined by the red welts and excessive urge to itch. 

Fire ants are aggressive reddish-brown ants and are a part of the Formicidae family and are known for their painful stings. They typically come into contact with humans when individuals unknowingly disturb their nests, and they attack as a defensive response to protect their colony, often swarming and delivering multiple painful stings. Unlike other ants, fire ants don’t necessarily have a pronounced mound above ground, but create an underground network of tunnels that have entrances. 

Fleas are small, wingless parasitic insects that are closely related to the family Nannochoristidae that infest animals and can also bite humans. They can get near people by hitchhiking on pets or infesting the environment. Fleas are attracted to people by body heat, movement, and the carbon dioxide we exhale. Their bites appear as small, red, itchy bumps on the skin, often in clusters or rows. When fleas are discovered, it is important to address the infestation by treating pets, vacuuming and cleaning the living space thoroughly, and washing bedding and fabrics. To treat flea bites, wash the affected area with soap and water, apply an anti-itch cream or calamine lotion, and take antihistamines to relieve itching. 

Black flies, also known as buffalo gnats or turkey gnats, are a type of small fly found in various regions of the United States. Unlike horse flies, they do not get much larger than 15 millimeters. They are attracted to people by the carbon dioxide we exhale, body heat, and certain scents. Black flies are often found near bodies of water, such as rivers, streams, and lakes, as their larvae develop in aquatic environments. They can be particularly active during the spring and summer months. While their bites are not known to transmit diseases, they can cause painful, itchy reactions on the skin. Female black flies bite in order to obtain blood as a protein source for their reproduction, while male black flies typically do not bite and primarily feed on nectar.

Mosquitoes, an all-encompassing term for thousands of species, are prevalent throughout the United States. Female mosquitoes are the ones that bite, as they require blood meals to nourish their eggs. They are attracted to people by the carbon dioxide we exhale, body heat, and certain chemical cues like sweat and body odor. Mosquitoes are commonly found near bodies of water, such as ponds, lakes, and marshes, as they lay their eggs in stagnant water sources. Their interaction with people is driven by their need for a blood meal, which they obtain by probing the skin with their sharp mouthparts. While some mosquito species may transmit diseases, such as West Nile virus or Zika virus, their bites can also cause itchy, irritating reactions on the skin. Implementing preventive measures, such as wearing protective clothing, using insect repellents, and eliminating standing water breeding sites, can help reduce mosquito interactions and minimize the risk of bites.

Itch mites, also known as scabies mites Sarcoptes scabiei, are tiny parasites that cause scabies, a contagious skin infestation. Scabies is usually spread through prolonged skin-to-skin contact with an infested person. When the mites come into contact with the skin, they burrow into the top layer, causing an allergic reaction that triggers intense itching. The body's immune system responds to the presence of the mites and their waste products by releasing chemicals, leading to the development of a rash as a defensive mechanism. The rash serves as a visible sign of the infestation and is often accompanied by symptoms such as red bumps, blisters, and skin irritation. 

Spiders are arachnids that can be found in various habitats worldwide. While they are typically shy and try to avoid human contact, interactions can occur when spiders unintentionally come into homes, gardens, or outdoor areas where people are present. Spider bites usually occur when a spider feels threatened or trapped, as a defensive response. Most spider bites are non-severe and result in localized symptoms such as redness, swelling, and pain. However, certain species of spiders, such as the black widow or brown recluse, have venom that can cause more severe symptoms. Signs of a severe spider bite may include intense pain, muscle cramps, fever, and systemic reactions. If a severe spider bite is suspected, it is crucial to seek immediate medical attention.

Ticks are small arachnids that belong to the same family as spiders and mites. They are commonly found in wooded or grassy areas, particularly where there is dense vegetation and wildlife. Ticks come into contact with people by latching onto their skin when they brush against vegetation or come into contact with infested animals. They bite people to feed on their blood and can transmit diseases such as Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, or tick-borne encephalitis. Tick bites can appear as small, red bumps and may cause localized itching or irritation. To treat a tick bite, it is essential to remove the tick carefully, clean the bite area, and monitor for any signs of infection. If symptoms develop or there is concern about potential disease transmission, seeking medical attention is recommended for appropriate diagnosis and treatment.

Wasps are flying insects belonging to the Hymenoptera order and are known for their slender bodies, narrow waists, and often vibrant colors. Including yellow jackets and hornets, wasps are commonly found in various habitats, including gardens, forests, and urban areas. Wasps can come into contact with people when their nests are disturbed or when they are attracted to sources of food or sweet liquids. The insects are protective of their nests and may sting as a defense mechanism when they feel threatened, confused, or agitated. The sting of a wasp can be painful, can be used repeatedly, and can cause allergic reactions in some individuals.

How do you treat bug bites?

  1. Clean the affected area: After being stung or bitten, wash the bite gently with mild soap and water to remove any dirt or bacteria.
  2. Reduce swelling: When clean, the bug bite or sting area might swell. Use a cold compress or an ice pack wrapped in a cloth to reduce swelling and alleviate itching. Apply it to the bite for about 10-15 minutes at a time.
  3. Use over-the-counter meds: Most that get bug bites or stings report feeling irritation and pain from the impacted area. Consider using over-the-counter topical creams, ointments, or sprays that contain ingredients like hydrocortisone or calamine to reduce itching and inflammation.
  4. Take oral antihistamines: If the bug bite or sting causes significant itching or discomfort, you can take an oral antihistamine medication to help relieve symptoms. Be sure to follow the instructions and consult a healthcare professional if needed.
  5. Avoid scratching: It's essential to resist the urge to scratch the bug bite as it can increase the risk of infection and delay the healing process.
  6. Monitor for signs of a reaction: Make sure to monitor yourself and loved ones after any insect bites or stings, if allergic, symptoms can escalate to more serious issues such as trouble breathing. If you know that you or someone with you is allergic to any bugs, such as bees and wasps, an EpiPen should be kept close during outings where you are vulnerable or exposed. It is important to seek medical attention immediately if you notice any alarming reactions or are bitten or stung by a poisonous insect.

How do you know if a bug bite is serious?

Arachnid and insect bites and stings can turn far more severe if in the case that the person is allergic or the culprit is venomous. In such cases, it is important to monitor a person for more severe symptoms and to be prepared to seek out medical attention. Here are the signs to watch out for:

  • Severe swelling or redness: If the swelling or redness extends beyond the immediate area of the bite, or if it continues to worsen over time, it could be a sign of an allergic reaction or infection.
  • Increasing pain or warmth: If the bite becomes increasingly painful, tender, or warm to the touch, it may indicate an infection.
  • Spreading rash or hives: If the bite site develops a spreading rash or hives that extend beyond the immediate area, it could indicate an allergic reaction.
  • Systemic symptoms: If you experience symptoms such as difficulty breathing, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, or a rapid heartbeat, it could indicate a severe allergic reaction that requires immediate medical attention.
  • Signs of infection: Look for signs of infection such as pus, increasing redness, warmth, or the development of a fever.
  • Persistent or worsening symptoms: If the symptoms persist or worsen despite home care measures, it is advisable to seek medical advice.
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