It’s important to know what to watch for because most bug bites and stings are just annoying.
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.
The season also matters. For example, mosquitoes, 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.
Biting insects, arachnids, and other bugs
Many bugs bite, but only a few do so intentionally. Most bites are relatively harmless, leaving just an itchy patch of skin behind. But some bites can carry disease: Deer ticks, for example, typically carry Lyme disease.
Intentional biters include:
- chigger mites
- scabies mites
- head lice
- pubic lice
- horse flies
- black flies
Many larger insects and other bugs won’t seek you out but will bite if handled.
Some spiders have poisonous fangs. Poisonous spiders found in the United States include:
- brown recluse spider
- black widow spider
- hobo spider
- grass spider
- mouse spider
- black house spider
- wolf spider
Insects will sting humans only to defend 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 include:
- paper wasps (hornets)
- yellow jackets
- fire ants
Scorpions have a reputation for stinging. Many species have barbed tails equipped with poison — 25 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.
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 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’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.
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
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 doctor for tests to rule out infections or diseases you may have contracted from the insect.
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.
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, 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 the itching.
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.
What’s the long-term outlook?
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’ve 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 relieve the reaction immediately following a bite or sting.
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:
- 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