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Bug Bites and Stings

The form an insect bite takes depends on what type of bug bit you. Take a look at the photos below to help identify which insect may have caused your bug bite.

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

Stinging insects

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 include:

  • bees
  • hornets
  • yellow jackets
  • wasps
  • 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 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.

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 dioxide.

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:

  • swelling
  • redness or rash
  • pain in the affected area or in the muscles
  • itching
  • 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 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.

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:

  • nausea
  • dizziness
  • 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 insects.
  • 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. 

Content licensed from:

Written by: Marissa Selner, Elijah Wolfson, Marijane Leonard, and Kathryn Watson
Medically reviewed on: Mar 22, 2016: George Krucik, MD, MBA

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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