Bug bites and insect stings are common. In most cases, the discomfort, itching, or redness caused by a bite or sting will improve without treatment within a few hours or days. However, sometimes you need to see a medical provider.
If any of your symptoms fails to improve or worsens within a few days or if you experience any symptoms of a severe allergic reaction (including difficulty breathing, dizziness, or a swollen face or mouth), seek medical attention immediately.
When to See a Doctor for a Bug Bite
It’s not uncommon for bug bites to cause small, swollen, red lumps to form on the skin. In some cases, bug bites can also cause itchiness and pain. These symptoms do not warrant medical attention as long as they start to improve within a few days.
However, if you notice any of the following after a bug bite or sting, contact your medical provider for care:
- Symptoms that don’t improve or that worsen
- A bite or sting near the eyes or in your mouth or throat
- A patch of red and inflamed skin that is larger than 3.75 inches (10 centimeters)
- Flu-like symptoms, including a fever or swollen glands
Additionally, the following symptoms could be a sign of a serious allergic reaction. If you experience any of the below, call 911 or seek emergency medical treatment:
- Trouble breathing or shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Throat tightness
- Difficulty swallowing
- Turning blue or skin flushing
Types of Bug Bites
Several insects can cause a bug bite or sting, including:
Determining If a Bug Bite Is Infected
It’s important to monitor your bug bite for signs of infection in the days following the initial bite or sting. Signs of infection can include:
- Increasing redness, swelling, or pain
- Flu-like symptoms, including a high fever
If you experience any of these symptoms, contact your medical provider for care.
At-Home Treatment for Bug Bites
If your bug bite or sting causes mild symptoms, you can treat the symptoms at home. At-home treatment methods include:
- Remove the sting or tick if present and still embedded in the skin
- Gently clean the bite or sting with soap and water
- Apply a cold compress or ice pack for at least 10 minutes to reduce swelling
- Elevate the affected area to reduce swelling
- Avoid scratching the bite or sting
- If needed, use an over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamine or anti-itch cream
- Don’t use an OTC pain medicine (unless advised by a medical professional)
- Don’t apply a tourniquet
- Don’t apply home remedies such as baking soda or vinegar
Medical Treatment for Bug Bites
Medical treatment vary depending on the type of bug bite you have and the severity of your symptoms. If the bite is infected, your provider may prescribe oral or topical antibiotics. In severe cases, minor surgery may be recommended to drain an abscess.
In the case of allergic reaction, an injection of intramuscular epinephrine should be administered immediately. Epinephrine can be repeated every 5-15 minutes, depending on the severity of your symptoms. In some cases, your provider may also recommend additional treatments, including corticosteroids, albuterol, and/or antihistamines. In the rare but occasional case of contact with a venomous insect, antivenom treatment is available after consultation with a poison control center.
Though rare, some bug bites can also spread disease, such as malaria, Lyme disease, and West Nile virus. In those cases, consult a medical provider for the best treatment plan. In the case of Lyme disease, treatment strategies may be ongoing.
Risks of Untreated Bug Bites
Most bug bites cause mild symptoms that resolve on their own within a few days. But if you experience symptoms of an infection, leaving the bite untreated can allow the infection to spread, which can lead to a more serious condition. If an allergic reaction is untreated, it can lead to death.
Not all bug bites and stings are avoidable, but there are several strategies that can help to prevent them:
- Use an EPA-registered insect repellent
- Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants
- Treat clothing with permethrin
- Use bug screens on windows and doors
- Use a mosquito net if sleeping outside or in a tent
- Avoid areas with tall grass
- Walk in the center of trails
- Check clothing for ticks
- Check gear and pets for ticks and other insects
- Shower after being outdoors
- Avoid using products with strong perfumes
- Avoid wearing floral-patterned or dark clothing
- Avoid insect nests
- Avoid camping or hiking near still water (including ponds and swamps)
- Keep food and drinks covered when eating outdoors
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Frequently Asked Questions
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
Avoid Bug Bites. (2022.)
Insect Bites. (2022.)
Insect Bites and Stings. (2021.)
Insect bites and stings. (2019.)
Repellents: Protection against Mosquitoes, Ticks and Other Arthropods. (2022.)