Bug Bites: Here’s Everything You Should Know

Dr. Nikhil Eric Saldanha

January 26, 2022

Bug bites are punctures or lacerated injuries made by insects on your skin. The bite may be an act by an insect in self-defence or to feed. For the one suffering from it, there may be some reactions irrespective of the nature of the bite. Some bites may be painless, and you hardly notice them. However, it may cause temporary uneasiness and pain without the severe disorder. Nonetheless, it depends on the type of bug.

Is there any difference between insect bites and insect stings? Are they the same?

It is a common query for many and confusing too. We often use the terms bite and sting interchangeably. A bite is when any insect punctures a person’s skin with its mouth to feed. It may usually itch. Bug bites hardly cause any allergic reaction, unlike stings. 

A sting is when an insect pierces your skin with another body part of their body to inject venom. It may be a barbed stinger from its tail, used for self-defence. Stings may be more excruciating than bites and may disappear in a few days on their own, while others are pretty perilous. Sometimes, they may cause infections that need urgent medical care. Allergic reactions caused by these stings may be severe and even fatal.

Symptoms of Insect Bites and Stings

According to a study, if an insect bites or stings you, you will either feel it or spot it on your skin. On the contrary, in some instances, you may not even realise it until visible symptoms appear. However, if you are sensitive to bug bites, you may develop symptoms immediately. These symptoms include swelling, rashes, skin discolouration etc. Additionally, pain, swelling, numbness or tingling are some other symptoms . 

Some bug bites may appear reddish with intense pain and swelling. If a bug bite or sting bite gets infected, it might develop pus. It is the fluid accumulation of degenerated white blood cells, tissue debris and bacteria within the wound. It accompanies the following traits: 

  • Swollen glands 
  • A rise in body temperature 
  • Flu-like symptoms, etc. 

Allergic reactions from bug bites may typically not persist beyond a few hours. However, some may linger for months like the bite of Lone Star Tick. It depends on the type of bug bite. In this case, the individual should consult a doctor. In severe reactions, symptoms may be sudden onset of fever, difficulty in breathing or breathlessness, or muscle spasms. Rapid heartbeat, confusion, disoriented speech, swelling of the lips, loss of consciousness, and nausea or vomiting aggravate symptoms. It requires immediate medical care. 

Apart from the above symptoms, you may develop flu-like symptoms a few days after an insect bite. You need to consult your health care provider to rule out any infections from the insect bite. For example, malaria and dengue don’t show a sudden onset of symptoms. You may be asymptomatic. It may take at least two weeks for visible signs.

What Causes Bug Bite Reaction?

Mainly bug bites may cause itching or soreness. In addition, some people may experience an allergic reaction to insect bites. However, the response may differ with the insect and your sensitivity.

The bites mainly inject formic acid. The acid injected into your body from the bite or sting may cause your body to react immediately. It may lead to blisters, redness, swelling, pain, itching, and inflammation at the sting site. Usually, a bite may appear as a tiny lump or blister on your skin. Otherwise, the bite may be visible, like a tiny hole. 

The lump may be or may not be full of fluid. Moreover, if you are sensitive to insect bites and stings, you may have potential adverse effects. This fatal condition is called anaphylactic shock. It may cause the throat to tighten and result in breathlessness or low blood pressure.

Allergic reactions to insect bites do not generally last more than a few hours. However, sometimes they can linger for months. In this case, you should consult a doctor.

Types of Bug Bites

Bug bites may show several effects according to the types of bugs. For instance, Flea bites may give you an itchy rash on your skin. It may often be on your ankles and legs. Some may have minor symptoms, which include red skin and swelling. These are generalised symptoms. 

Let’s look at a few common types of bug bites and their symptoms here. It may help you identify them better.

1. Tick Bites

As per a study, tick bites may not be painful. Instead, they only develop a lump. A tick bite injury recovers in 2-3 weeks. Symptoms might persist or prolong only if any part of the mouth remains on your skin. However, some ticks may result in Lyme disease. It is due to the bacterium, Borrelia Burgdorferi. It transmits through the bite of infected black-legged ticks. 

Lyme disease’s symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue, and a skin rash. These may cause serious health concerns. In addition, it can lead to chronic joint inflammation, neurological symptoms, facial palsy and neuropathy or impaired memory.

2. Mosquitoes Bites 

According to research, bites may cause small elevated, itchy pink lumps on your skin. Rarely you may encounter a severe allergic reaction. It depends on your sensitivity. Blisters or bumps may develop if you are sensitive. However, mosquito bites may transmit diseases like malaria, Zika, dengue fever, yellow fever etc. So, you must take precautionary measures to safeguard yourself from mosquito bites. Filariasis, commonly known as elephantiasis, is also a highly debilitating disorder from a mosquito bite.

3. Fleas

Fleas are wingless parasites that depend on mammals and birds. As per research, when they bite, the mark appears as a wheal and peaks in 5 to 20 minutes. Later, it hardens to a lesion within 12–24 hours. If sensitive to insect bites, you may experience itching around the bite wound for a few days. The most significant impact of fleas is transmitting multiple fatal diseases like typhus and plague.

4. Horseflies

Horseflies may inflict you with a painful bite. That is because it pierces into your skin when it bites. Dizziness, irritability of eyes and lips, fatigue, swelling, pink or red discolouration of your skin swelling, rashes etc., are the symptoms of horsefly bites. In addition, horsefly bites may take time to heal.

5. Bedbugs

They are a significant concern. Bed bugs are insects that feed on your blood, especially at night. According to a study, bedbug bites do not cause any severe reaction in most cases. However, if you are sensitive to its bite, it may have various health impacts like skin rashes and allergic symptoms. Skin rashes range from skin discolouration to prominent blisters.

6. Sandflies

Sandflies are tiny flies commonly found in tropical and subtropical regions. They are hardly 3 millimetres long and are gold, brown, or grey coloured insects. They usually thrive in hardwood forests. When a sandfly bites, it may be painful and itchy. Reddish lumps with blistering may develop. It may even result in a laceration.

Sandflies also transmit diseases like leishmaniasis, a critical disorder. Depending on the variant of the sand fly, the symptoms differ. However, the symptoms include skin sores, a fever, and a low white blood count. 

7. Black Widow Spider

Black widow spider is a venomous variant among spiders whose sting may be excruciating. The symptoms develop within a few minutes of the bite. It may radiate to your chest and abdomen, back and shoulders. Due to the intensity of the bite, you may experience severe muscle cramps. Other symptoms include breathlessness, nausea, vomiting, chills, hypertension, lethargy, profuse sweating etc. In extreme cases, black widow spider venom may result in seizures and even death. 

Anyone who feels a black widow spider has bitten them should seek emergency care. 


A secondary bacterial infection may develop if you scratch to bruise the skin. It includes cellulitis, lymphangitis,  impetigo. It may require antibiotic therapy.

Some tick bites cause Lyme disease, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF). It is a bacterial disease transmitted via the bite of an infected tick. Fever, headache, vomiting fever are the symptoms that develop a few days later to the bite. 

Without proper medical attention, Lyme disease aggravates meningitis, facial palsy, radiculopathy, and encephalitis. Other risks may include joint disorders like arthritis and cardiac disorders.

Various strains of mosquitoes transmit different diseases, such as malaria, filaria, West Nile virus etc.

Treatment of Bites and Stings

You can treat most of the insect bites at home. To treat a bite or sting, Initially, you may remove any parts of the insects that may have broken and remained at the bite site. It may be a stinger. Then clean the affected area followed by cold fermentation or sponging to reduce the pain or swelling. Avoid itching the skin or bursting a blister. It can result in bacterial infection.

It may cause bacteria to enter and develop a systemic bacterial infection, fatal if left untreated. In addition, it may spread to your lymph nodes and reach your bloodstream, tissues and bones. It can also cause life-threatening Sepsis. Therefore, it requires immediate medical care.

Topical applicants, spray, or the local anaesthetic gel may help to relieve the pain and uneasiness. Next, applying a baking soda paste with water to the sting site, it has neutralising properties that may calm the tingling sensation. Then, doctors may initiate the treatment according to the intensity of the reaction to the bite. 

Some bites and stings may cause discomfort due to the venom. When experiencing intense pain or irritability, you may need painkillers and antihistamines. It helps to combat uncomfortable symptoms. However, severe reactions around the wound with more generalised symptoms may persist in some instances. Don’t delay seeking medical help in such conditions.

Suppose bites are from fleas, mites, or bedbugs. It is necessary to find the source of the infestation if the edges are from mites, bugs, or ticks. They may be from your pets or garden. Such instances may require treatment for your pets also.


As we know the potential complications of bug bites, it is essential to prevent them. The most crucial step towards preventing the impacts of bug bites and stings is to avoid them. Prevention is critical in limiting a patient’s chance of developing severe and life-threatening diseases.

Here are a few measures which may help you prevent insect bites. These may not offer complete protection around the clock. However, it may reduce the risk of insect bites to a certain extent.

Insect Repellents

Using insect repellent is likely to protect you from bites and stings. It is available in creams or topical applicants, gel spray etc. Repellents with a concentration of 10% to 30% DEET (N, N-diethyl-meta-toluamide) are ideal and practical.

Repellents comprising picaridin or eucalyptus oil and lemon oil effectively work against mosquitoes, bugs, and other insects. Ensure that you use the spray on your clothes. Avoid using repellent around the eyes and irritated skin. It may prevent further uneasiness. I prefer organic or natural repellents. However, it would help if you were cautious with repellents too. They may not be safe for infants.

Insect repellent is not suitable for infants, significantly below two months. That is because it contains DEET, which may result in skin rashes. However, the oil of eucalyptus can be effective. You may also check with your paediatrician for a safer option.

Clothes and Protective Accessories

  • You may buy clothes, shoes, and gear that give you complete protection for activities like hiking and camping. Some of them may contain permethrin. It is medicinal and repellent. It is available as a cream or lotion. You can spray it onto clothes or mosquito nets to kill the insects. 
  • Wear long sleeves and pants, tuck them into shoes or socks.
  • Pitch Tents Away From Water or Swamps
  • Refrain from the insects infested sites and follow the necessary measures. The local public health authorities may provide information about such infested areas.
  • Stay away from mosquitoes breeding sites, such as pools or ponds. Instead, clear accumulated and stagnant water from pots, buckets, etc., stays indoors when mosquitoes are most active, like dawn and dusk.
  • When you are in tick-infested locations, prefer the centre of trails. Avoid woody areas and grassy areas. 
  • Check kids every few hours for any signs of ticks. You should examine regions behind the ears, on the scalp, back of the neck, armpits and behind the knees.
  • Check your pets, too, especially during the monsoon. Tick infestation is more prevalent during the monsoon.
  • Use anti-tick products on pets to protect them from tick bites.
  • Fix structural barriers like window screens or nets.
  • Avoid brushy and grassy locations
  • Never leave garbage cans opened
  • Checking containers for stagnant water is an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes.
  • Use long gloves while gardening.
  • Avoid disturbing bee or wasp nests. Insects sting as a defence mechanism when they feel threatened
  • Spiders and insects may hide behind wood piles, furniture around corners, and attic. So, caution yourself at such places. 
  • Prevent flea infestations by decontamination or regular pest control measures for your house. Regular vacuuming also may help. Frequent washing of bedding may prevent bed bugs. You may also replace old pillows and mattresses.


Most bug bites are harmless. Nonetheless, they may cause some discomfort and diseases. At the same time, some may be deadly, especially if you are sensitive or allergic to bug venom. Staying totally protected from a bug bite or sting is slightly tricky. However, you may defend yourself to a certain extent with the precautions. You should not ignore any instances of bug bites or stings. Instead, consult your doctor to rule out any complications or risks.

About the Author

Dr. Nikhil did Medicine (MBBS) at St. John’s Medical College and then decided to step away to do a Master’s in Health Psychology at the University of Stirling. On the way to that, he has worked with an NGO, Enfold, on teaching sexual health education in schools and colleges to create a healthy foundation for better sexual health in the nation. He has also worked as a medical content editor with Vinformax. He has now been working with HealthifyMe to bring in a renewed user-centric perspective concerning the users' medical conditions and to support the company with more effective digital tools and devices. He hopes to help improve the healthcare scenario in India.

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