Ah, the arrival of warm weather. Feels great, doesn’t it? Except when the idyllic, inviting outdoors is coupled with unpleasant and uninvited tiny creatures that bite: bugs, insects and spiders.
While most bites aren’t harmful, others require prompt, serious attention. But it’s not just outdoor pests that can cause problems---indoor creatures can cause havoc as well. Recent studies have shown that illnesses from common bites have increased in the last decade, so it’s wise to do your best to avoid and prevent them whenever possible.
However, if you’ve recently experienced a bug bite and need help identifying it, we can help. Here are some of the most common bites you may encounter, what they look like, and how you can treat them.
Mosquito bites are usually harmless but can be serious. Most people feel a quick stinging sensation followed by a small, reddish, itchy bump that usually disappears after a day or two. However, some people may develop allergic reactions, including blisters, hives and even anaphylaxis---a severe, allergic reaction that affects the entire body and is a serious medical emergency. Mosquitos also can spread diseases (such as malaria, dengue fever, West Nile or zika virus) to humans, although this mostly occurs in tropical areas. Mosquito bites should be washed thoroughly with soap and water. An over-the-counter topical anti-itch cream or ointment can then be applied to the affected area.
Bee and Wasp Stings
Bee and wasp (yellow jackets and bald-faced hornets) stings both look like swollen red mounds with a small white dot in the center. Bees leave their stingers behind, but wasps do not----and therefore can sting the same person again and again. Bee stingers imbedded in the skin are attached to a venom sac. Both can be removed by carefully using a scraping motion against the skin—the edge of a credit card, your fingernail or a thin table knife can be used. If that fails, carefully remove the stinger with tweezers. Bee and wasp stings can be treated by washing carefully the area with soap and water and cleaning it with an antiseptic. Antibiotic ointment can be applied to the dried area and an ice pack can do much to alleviate pain. Over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen and antihistamines can also help. However, some people are allergic to bees or wasps; trouble breathing, dizziness, fainting, throat or tongue swelling or weak pulse can result. If you experience any of these symptoms, call 911. If you’re found to be allergic to bee stings, your doctor will probably prescribe an emergency epinephrine autoinjector (Epipen) that will reverse the severe allergic reaction.
Fire Ant Bites
The bites from these aggressive creatures (which are actually stings from their abdomens) immediately cause pain and burning at the bite site. Red bumps, sometimes with cloudy pus, quickly appear along with swelling. Blisters form in the next day or two and can remain for more than a week. The fire ant bite area can be extensive and should be quickly cleaned with soap and water. Antihistamines, cold compresses and pain relievers can help reduce discomfort. Do not scratch or puncture the blisters---secondary infections may be the result.
Bed Bug Bites
Small, reddish-brown insects, bed bugs make their home in bedding - mattresses, box springs, headboards, footboards, bed frames - as well as chair and couch cushions and in their seams. Curtains and drapes are not immune either, bed bugs can hide in their folds. Although they feed every 5 to 10 days, they can live for more than a year without feeding. Many people have no or little reaction to bed bug bites at first. Swelling at the bite site (usually arms, hands, neck and face) may or may not be accompanied by a red rash; itchy red bumps also appear. Some people, though, are extremely allergic to these creatures and can experience blisters, hives and severe itching. Although bed bugs don’t transmit diseases, they are a nuisance and spread throughout the home. The greatest health risk is infection from scratching a bite. Over-the-counter antihistamines and cortisone-containing creams can decrease the itchiness.
Flea bites usually appear as a group of itchy, small bumps close together and are usually found on your feet or lower legs (since fleas usually live in carpets and floorboards) but they can occur anywhere on your body, especially if the home is a known flea infestation. Fleas are most common in homes with pets, but they also live outdoors. Although fleas don’t have wings, they can travel far and fast because of their long, powerful legs that propel their powerful jumps. Although uncommon, some fleas can carry and transmit bubonic plague and murine typhus to humans. They also can transmit dog and rodent tapeworms to humans. Flea bites can become infected as scratching can introduce bacteria into the open wounds. Over-the-counter antihistamines and cortisone-containing creams can help reduce discomfort.
Ticks are found in wooded areas, grass, bushes and on plants. They attach themselves to usually hairy areas, such as the scalp, armpit, groin and behind the ears. However, they can be found anywhere on the body. Tick bites appear as a small red bump that may feel warm or tender. Most people don’t notice the bites unless the tick is still on the skin. If you do find a tick on your skin, use pointed tweezers to grasp the tick and then pull steadily and slowly until the tick is removed. Don’t squeeze or crush the tick as this may force infected tick fluid into your skin. One the tick is removed, wash the area and your hand with soapy water. Monitor the bite site for the next two weeks for any signs of an expanding rash, especially the round or oval reddish rash (that often looks like a bulls-eye) associated with Lyme disease. Be aware of any flu-like symptoms (fever, fatigue, body aches) that may develop. Ticks can pass on many diseases, including Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Colorado tick fever, tularemia, ehrlichiosis and babesiosis. It’s important to see your doctor if additional symptoms appear as antibiotic care is essential for many of these serious conditions.
Flies are usually found near food, trash and animal feces. They locate human and animal victims by sensing the carbon dioxide and moisture in exhaled breath, perspiration and dark colors. Most flies are merely annoying, but a few can cause serious problems. Black flies, horse flies and stable flies can produce severe allergic reactions in some people. Deer flies can transmit the bacterial disease tularemia, also known as rabbit fever, to humans. Some types of sand flies are thought to transmit cutaneous leishmaniasis, which causes disfiguring boil-like facial lesions. Most fly bites, which usually appear as swollen, itchy red bumps, can be treated with soapy water, over-the-counter antihistamines and ice packs. However, if symptoms persist or if you develop a fever, wheezing, swollen lips or eyes, feel dizzy or weak, contact your doctor or visit the nearest emergency room.
There are three types of human lice—head lice, body lice and public (crab) lice. Head and body lice look alike, although head lice are smaller. Head and pubic lice infect hair whereas body lice infest clothing, particularly at the seams. Head lice are the most common and, unfortunately, are not solely confined to hair; they can be found on brushes, combs, hair clips, hats, scarves, towels and stuffed animals. Lice can cause intense itching or a tickling feeling as they move through your hair. Sometimes, small red bumps appear on the scalp, neck or shoulders. Head lice do not spread other disease, but body lice can transmit typhus, infective endocarditis, trench fever and relapsing fever. Pubic lice are usually spread as a sexually transmitted disease (STD); about a third of infected people have been found to have another STD, such as herpes, chlamydia, genital warts, HIV infections, syphilis or gonorrhea. Over-the-counter anti-lice shampoos should be used although prescription shampoos may be necessary.
Most spider bites are rarely a cause for concern. They look and feel like many insect bites---a red, swollen, sometimes itchy or painful bump on the skin. Skin should be washed with warm soapy water and an ice pack applied. The bites of two types of spiders---brown recluse and black widow—can, however, cause serious harm to humans. In the US, brown recluse spiders are more common in some parts of the South and the southern Midwest while black widow spiders, while found through the US, are more common in the Southwest. Brown recluse spider bites usually cause increasing pain in the first 8 hours, as well as fever, chills and body aches. In severe cases, breathing trouble, abdominal cramping, severe pain or an ulcer at the bite site can occur. Black widow spider bites can cause pain not only at the site of the bite but also in the back, chest or abdomen. Excessive sweating and abdominal cramping also can occur. Both types of bites should be treated immediately to reduce the risk of life-threatening complications.
Although painful, most scorpion stings are rarely serious or life-threatening. However, the bark scorpion, found in the desert Southwest (Arizona, New Mexico and the California side of the Colorado River), has a more serious sting that must be treated immediately. Most scorpions prefer cool, damp places (like wood piles and basements), come out at night and are more active when it rains. Scorpion stings are intensely painful and may swell and redden. The bite area should be washed with soap and water. Ice packs can help with pain and swelling. Sometimes, however, serious side effects (especially in children, due to their smaller size compared to adults) can occur. These include nausea and vomiting, drooling, sweating, high blood pressure, fast or irregular heartbeat, restlessness, inconsolable crying (in children), excitability, difficult breathing, muscle twitching or thrashing or abnormal head, eye or neck movement. Immediate medical care is indicated. All children should receive immediate medical care even if they fail to develop these more serious symptoms.
Like their relatives---spiders and scorpions—this type of mite has 8 legs and a tube-like mouth. Over 48,000 species are known. Chigger mites are found in grassy fields, forests and along lakes and streams. It’s the larval stage of these creatures that affect humans and animals. Most chiggers can only be seen with a magnifying glass and attach themselves to the skin with their claws. They then pierce the skin and inject saliva, which dissolves skin cells, their source of food. Chiggers usually fall off the skin after a few days but leave behind a calling card—clusters of itchy, pink bumps that become red and crusty when scratched. They should be washed vigorously with soapy water to remove any remaining chiggers and an over-the-counter cortisone cream applied. Cool compresses can also help reduce itching. If symptoms fail to improve within a week or two, contact your doctor.