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How to Identify Common Bug Bites and Stings, According to an Expert

Plus, the telltale signs when it's something more serious.

Associate Editor
Woman Itching Her Skin in the Garden
Photography by: Ian Hooton/Science Photo Library/Getty

If you spend the afternoon hiking on a nearby trail or digging around in your vegetable garden's soil, there's a good chance that you shrug off the occasional bug bite as a byproduct of time spent outside. Mosquito bites, which often result in a hard, red bump adorned with an even redder dot in its center, can be quite painful, but they're not often a cause for concern. That doesn't mean all bug bites are just a nuisance; some concerning bug bites might feel similar to mosquito bites, while others look and feel like something else entirely and could be mistaken for a rash. Unless you're lucky enough to catch the bug in the act, you may be confused about what's causing you so much pain—and neglect to properly address the situation. 

 

Dr. David Claborn, the director of the master of public health program at Missouri State University and a former entomologist for the United States Navy, has seen how ignoring a bug bite can snowball into more serious health complications. "In general, bug bites are done with mouthparts—they occur because the insect is searching for nutrition, in the case of mosquitoes," says Claborn, who has conducted a statewide multi-year survey of mosquitoes for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. "In some cases, it's done as a defense mechanism, and those bites can be a little more serious." Here, Claborn shares the characteristics associated with common bug bites you might experience in areas across the country; if these symptoms apply to you, there may be a need for medical intervention, or at least some form of advanced relief. It's important to contact your healthcare provider immediately if bites or stings lead to excruciating pain, Claborn says, as homemade remedies aren't sufficient in severe cases like these.

 

RELATED: Our Most Natural Bug Repellents and Bite Treatments

 

Tick Bites

The prevalence of Lyme disease has increased over time, Claborn says, as people often fail to recognize common tick signs. Historically, ticks were a rampant issue for those living in heavily wooded areas, but recent research suggests ticks are on the move, expanding into regions where any greenery and tall weeds that haven't been mowed might pose a risk to you. "If a tick bites you, you'll see a scab, and the area around the scab becomes very irritated," says Claborn, who recommends visiting a doctor immediately. "If you let them fall off your body naturally, the hole isn't so big—but if you pull them out, you'll leave a fairly big hole in you, and there may be a small amount of blood that comes out." 

 

It's crucial to conduct tick checks on yourself and your pet every time you head outside into a wooded area in the warmer season. Claborn says these bites can pop up in areas where clothing is tight and the skin is moist: armpits, the groin region, and your waistline are prime examples. Currently, he is conducting research on wild ticks in the Midwest region; to keep from getting bit, he shares that he treats his clothes with products using a chemical agent called permethrin, drying them for an extended period of time. On a recent excursion, Claborn shares that he collected more than 200 ticks for research, but wasn't bit thanks to permethrin, which he says is what many hunters use to avoid ticks, too. 

 

Chiggers and Unexplained Rashes

The most irritating bite is caused by a bug that you can't even see. Chiggers are infinitesimal mites—you would need a microscope to see them, Claborn says—that burrow into your skin and excrete digestive fluids; they can lead to a widespread rash-like mark that becomes very irritated, even after the mites are out of your skin. "The bites aren't very large, they probably look like small mosquito bites, but they're very red and very hard," he says. If you walk in a wooded area, chiggers can collect down around your ankles, and often jump onto your clothing and skin when you sit down on the ground outside.

 

RELATED: What to Know About Mosquito Bites and Your Pets

 

Bed Bugs 

"Some people don't react at all or they react very strongly to bed bugs," says Claborn, who explains that there are different species in different regions. If you're wondering if you've been bitten by bed bugs, check to see if these marks appear in a linear line—bed bugs often bite several times in a row as they travel across your skin. "They're probably going to be five or six of those in a row, clumped together," says Claborn. "They may have a blister-like appearance to them, with clear fluid appearing on the exterior of the bite." While bed bugs can bite you anywhere on the body, they tend to gravitate to an isolated area of your skin, like hands or feet, he says. While bed bug bites don't require medical treatment, you may experience an allergic reaction to their bite, per Claborn, and that should be addressed immediately. 

 

Fire Ant

Many people mistakenly blame ants for their bites, but most ants actually sting—females lay their eggs with an ovipositor, which also enables them to do so, Claborn shares. Harvester ants, which are commonly found in Western states, are a third-of-an-inch long and can cause a moderately painful sting. But the species you should keep an eye out for are red ants or fire ants. "They're not big ants, and their sting is only mildly irritating, but the biggest issue is the itching," Claborn explains. "As it starts to heal, there will be a small welt with a little blister on it—people will pop them but it doesn't help, since the itching process can last for several days, and scarring can last for several months."

 

If you spot a fire ant, you should exert caution since there can be up to 1,000 ants in a colony, according to Claborn, and they can all sting within seconds of each other. "These ants tend to swarm… When the first one stings, an alarm pheromone goes out to the whole colony, and then they all sting at the same time. There's a sensation like fire and that's why they're called fire ants." 

 

RELATED: How to Get Rid of Ants

 

Blister Beetles

Some beetles are known for their off-putting mandibles, but blister beetles earned their name due to chemicals in their system that cause blisters. "These irritating rashes occur when people are often working around hay; they somehow come into contact with these beetles that become defensive," Claborn says. "Blister beetles can cause big blisters that are three inches long—they're not necessarily painful, but they do itch." 

 

Black Flies

Particularly for those living in northern states and in the Midwest, black flies can appear in huge swarms around sources of water. These bites aren't known to cause long-lasting effects: You'll feel a sharp pain ("Like a piece of burning ash hitting your skin," Claborn says) and may experience some redness and tenderness at the bite site. These bugs don't transmit diseases however, and their mouthparts are "relatively small," our expert adds.

 

How to Treat Pesky Bites at Home

If your bites don't warrant a trip to your medical provider, Claborn says there are a few things you can do to soothe itching and irritated skin, which often is a relief for tender, hardened skin. A very simple solution for unforeseen bites is a paste of baking soda and water applied directly onto the skin, Claborn says, which is particularly useful for widespread mosquito bites. Claborn, however, swears by another over-the-counter product based on his experience conducting research in the field. 

 

"I lived on menthol powders, which will cut down on the itching that you experience with a lot of these bites and stings," he says. "Some people will use meat tenderizer, like salt, on these areas of skin, and some people have got a lot of relief out of that."