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What bit me? How to identify bug bites and stop the itch

Experts explain how treat a bug bite — and soothe the incessant itch.
The best way to deal with bites is to avoid getting them.
The best way to deal with bites is to avoid getting them.Getty Images

Spending time outdoors is one of the best ways to enjoy summer during the COVID-19 pandemic, but there’s a downside: bugs and more specifically bug bites.

Some bugs, like mosquitos, bite to feed. Other insects, like spiders, bite to defend themselves. Whatever the motives behind them may be, bug bites are no fun. They tend to puff up like pimples and itch like crazy (thanks to our immune system’s powerful histamine release upon detecting an insect’s foreign saliva). What’s worse, we often don’t even realize we’ve been bitten until well after the winged attacker is gone. How can you tell what bit you? How can you treat it and soothe that burning itch?

Identifying the bug based on the bite

Nancy Troyano, Ph.D., an entomologist and director of operations education and training for Rentokil North America, says that while a range of reactions to bug bites can occur, here’s generally what you can expect:

  • Mosquitoes: “Mosquito bites are usually red and itchy. For some people, a mosquito bite may appear to fill with fluid and create a small white blister.”
  • Flea: “Flea bites are often seen as tiny dark spots, surrounded by a reddened area on the skin. There is usually less swelling around these bites than other bug bites. A flea bite is felt immediately with the same flea often biting two or three times in the same area. The most common areas to see these bites are on the feet or lower legs.”
  • Bee or wasp: “You'll usually know when you get stung by a bee or wasp because it hurts. Within a few minutes, there may be localized redness and stinging near the site. You may also see a small white mark near the center of the swelling where the stinger went into your skin.”
  • Ticks: “It is not always obvious when you have a tick bite because it doesn't always leave a mark. Oftentimes, the tick is still attached to your skin when you discover it. You will need to remove the tick, so use tweezers and grab the tick as close to the skin as possible. Pull upward, and avoid twisting the tick. Once removed put the tick in rubbing alcohol and save it in a sealable container in case you need to see the doctor.”

See a doctor if…

Given the prevalence of tick-borne illnesses such as Lyme disease, it’s critical to closely monitor yourself if you suspect you’ve been bitten by a tick.

“If you notice a rash the shape of a bullseye, or a pink rash on your wrist, ankles or arms, or an ulcer-like area around the bite, it's time to call the doctor,” says Troyano. “If you experience a fever, aches, muscle fatigue, or chills, it could be the sign of a tick-borne illness.”

Given the prevalence of tick-borne illnesses such as Lyme disease, it’s critical to closely monitor yourself if you suspect you’ve been bitten by a tick.Getty Images

For other insect bites, Dr. Leann Poston, physician and medical content expert at Invigor Medical, recommends seeing a doctor if there is a red streak extending from the bite, swollen lymph nodes, a fever, pus or draining from the bite or an increase in pain after a day or so.”

Poston emphasizes that an ER visit is in order “if you have signs of anaphylaxis or systemic allergic response. These symptoms include hives, wheezing, difficulty breathing or swelling in the mouth or airway.”

How to treat the bite and stop the itch

Once you rule out the need for medical attention, you can proceed to treat the bite — which is likely itching like crazy thanks to your body’s well-intentioned release of histamine.

Dr. Poston recommends taking an antihistamine as soon as you notice the bite. If the itch has already set in, Dr. Sharleen St. Surin-Lord, medical director at Visage Dermatology and Aesthetics Center advises using applying anti-itch calamine lotion, Sarna lotion, Cortisone 10 cream, as well as to “cut [and file] your nails if you have to — long nails or short, sharp nails do more damage.”

If you have already broken skin by scratching, “apply an anti-bacterial ointment such as Neosporin to prevent infection,” St. Surin-Lord says, adding that Mederma Gel Scar Treatment is an ideal over-the-counter approach to help prevent scars on an unbroken skin.

Repel bugs with an EPA-approved bug spray

The best way to treat a bug bite is to avoid getting one in the first place, of course. Preparation is key; if you’re going to be outdoors, use a DEET or picaridin-based bug spray to repel mosquitoes and other bloodthirsty bugs. You can also go the route of essential oils if you’re looking for natural insect repellents.

Oil of lemon eucalyptus is an active ingredient that is proven to work but must be applied much more frequently,” says Derek Gaughan, owner of Bug Lord. “Most products suggest they last six hours, however my experience shows closer to four hours. Picaridin on the other hand can last upwards of 12 hours before needing to reapply.”

The Centers for Disease Control recommends to follow the label's instructions and reapply as often as directed — and apply sunscreen before bug spray for the best protection.