When to Worry About a Bug Bite or Sting

When to Worry About a Bug Bite or Sting

Bug bites and stings are a normal part of life, especially if you enjoy spending time outside. But what’s the difference between a harmless (if annoying) bite, and one that’s more serious? 

We’ve compiled a list of signs and symptoms to help you know when it’s time to visit a doctor.

What Makes a Bug Bite or Sting Serious?

When a bug bites or stings you, it leaves behind a bit of saliva or venom in your skin. Your body recognizes a foreign material , and reacts by producing a chemical called histamine that helps white blood cells move toward the bite. The histamine and blood flow cause your skin to itch, swell, and become irritated. 

Luckily, unless you’re allergic to mosquitoes, bees, or other insects, these symptoms are completely normal and won’t cause a serious issue. However, if you experience more severe symptoms, it could be a sign of illness or infection.

Symptoms of Illnesses Spread by Bug Bites

In the United States, we don’t have to worry about certain illnesses that are prevalent in other parts of the world. But there are some diseases and conditions you should watch for, as they could cause more serious medical issues.

Mosquito-Borne Illnesses

While there are instances of diseases like malaria in the US, the overwhelming majority of cases are found in travelers or immigrants returning from countries with more frequent transmission. If you’re going abroad, be sure to ask your doctor about potential vaccinations, medication, and precautions you need to take to prevent diseases such as Zika, dengue fever, and malaria.

You should also keep an eye out for the West Nile virus, especially in Southern coastal states like Florida. The West Nile virus only causes symptoms in about 20% of those infected, and include fever, fatigue, head and body aches, vomiting, diarrhea, and rash. While there unfortunately isn’t a vaccine or antiviral to cure West Nile virus, your doctor can recommend pain relievers to reduce fever and inflammation.  

Tick Bites & Lyme Disease

Tick bites aren’t usually painful, and in some cases, might not even be noticeable. However, ticks typically won’t let go of your skin if left alone, meaning you’ll have to find and remove the tick with a pair of tweezers. While it’s normal to have a bump left behind from a tick bite, you should contact your doctor if:

  • The tick has been attached to your skin for more than 24 hours
  • You cannot remove the tick on your own
  • You experience fever, body aches, joint pain, or other flu-like symptoms
  • You develop a rash, especially if it becomes larger or shaped like a bull’s eye
  • The bite becomes inflamed or infected

If the tick remains on your body for more than 24 hours or you develop a rash, there’s a chance it may have transmitted Lyme disease. Symptoms can appear anywhere from three days to a full month after the bite. Take a picture of the tick and freeze it in an airtight container after removal to help your doctor test for Lyme or other diseases.

Poisonous Spider Bites

While poisonous spider bites don’t cause diseases, they can cause significant medical issues if left untreated. Symptoms such as redness, swelling, and itching are normal for a generic spider bite, but poisonous spiders can cause:

  • Cramping
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Allergic reactions
  • Severe pain
  • Ulcers at site of bite

If you are bitten by a spider, try to take a picture of it or note it’s appearance as best as you can to help your doctor determine what bit you. If you are bitten on the arm or leg, try to keep the area elevated until you can get professional medical help.

Skin Infections from Bug Bites: What is Cellulitis?

The problem for most mosquito bites or bee stings comes when you start scratching them relentlessly, which can cause further skin breakage. Bacteria that is either on the surface of your skin or underneath your fingernails can then enter this breakage and cause an infection.

Cellulitis is a skin infection caused by Group A Streptococcus, the bacterium which is also responsible for Strep Throat, Scarlet Fever, Rheumatic Fever, and Toxic Shock Syndrome. But Staphylococcus (known as staph) and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) can also cause cellulitis. Because an open cut or scrape gives bacteria access to your bloodstream, you are at risk for contracting this infection if you scratch your skin excessively after a bug bite.

When you contract cellulitis, it penetrates all three layers of the skin: the outer layer (epidermis), the middle layer (dermis), and the bottom layer of subcutaneous tissue. 

If you notice any of the following symptoms, you may be developing an infection and should seek professional medical advice:

  • Skin redness that usually expands from the initial bite area
  • Swelling that extends beyond the site of the bite
  • Blisters
  • Warmth in the area of the bite
  • Pain or tenderness
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Swollen lymph nodes

An antibiotic course of 7-10 days usually eliminates cellulitis, but if you have a weakened immune system you may need to be treated for a longer period of time. If a standard course of antibiotics does not improve your infection, you have a persistent elevated temperature, or if your blood pressure is low, you might require intravenous (IV) treatment in a hospital setting. 

Other Skin Infections

When your skin is broken, it is vulnerable to many kinds of infections. Another common skin malady includes impetigo, which primarily affects children aged 2-5. Symptoms of impetigo include red and itchy sores that leak fluid or pus when they break open. Impetigo is also caused by group A Streptococcus and should be treated with antibiotics. 

Staph infection, caused by Staphylococcus aureus, can range from mild to life-threatening. Broken skin is one of the ways it enters the body, and it can impact major organs and bones once it’s in the bloodstream. Although broken skin isn’t the only way Staphylococcus aureus can enter the bloodstream, it is one of the risk factors.

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