Bug Bites 101
While most bug bites and stings are just a tiny bit painful, itchy or annoying, there are some insects that can mean trouble when they bite you. It’s time to get acquainted with the critters that want to take a bite out of you!
Bees & Wasps
For most people, being stung by a bee means a second or two of pain and some redness or swelling where the bite occurs. But if you’re allergic to bee and wasp stings, being bitten could mean major problems. If you are allergic, chances are you already know it; you may even carry around some special medication in a locket around your neck or in your purse just in case you get stung. Allergic reactions to bee stings range from hives to having a hard time breathing to an increased heart rate to feeling faint to parts of your body severely swelling up. If you notice any of these systems in yourself or in someone you are with who has just been stung by a bee, you must get help immediately. It hardly ever happens, but in the most severe allergic reactions to bee stings you could die without immediate medical attention.
Fleas & Ticks
Fleas are often found on Fido or Fluffy, but they can also be attracted to you. Don’t worry, though. Fleas can’t cause any serious harm to your health – they’re just annoying.
Depending on where you live, ticks could ruin a good camping trip – they love heavily wooded areas. One variety known as deer ticks may carry Lyme disease, so the trick is to get them off your body fast. Ticks can carry other diseases, too, like Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Ticks are usually found in heavily wooded areas.
Mosquitoes hang out anywhere people, food or pools of still or standing water are found. Generally they aren't anything to worry about: they bite, you itch, end of story. But there has been some concern about West Nile virus, which is transmitted to humans by mosquitoes. The good news is that healthy kids, teens and adults under 50 are at low risk of catching West Nile virus. And although the virus can put people at risk for developing a serious infection called encephalitis, this hardly ever happens. Less than 1% of the people who are infected with West Nile virus become seriously sick.
Most spider bites are minor, although they can cause mild swelling or allergic reactions. But a small percentage of teens become ill after being bitten by brown recluse or black widow spiders. Although not everyone will have a reaction, you should see a doctor and get treatment quickly if you know you've been bitten by one of these types of spiders.
The brown recluse is brown (big surprise) with a small shape of a violin in a darker brown area on the back of its head. These spiders are small but tough: a half-inch body with legs another inch long or more. They like to hide in dark, quiet places like basements, attics, storage sheds or garages. When people enter their space unexpectedly, they bite out of fear. The bites usually don't hurt at first though – most people don't even know they've been bitten.
Brown recluse spider bites don't cause problems for most people. But in a small percentage of cases they can lead to skin damage and scarring. The few people who do have a reaction may notice swelling and skin changes 4-8 hours after the bite. The swelling may form a blister. If this happens, a dark, scabby material called eschar may cover the blister within a week after the bite. Most brown recluse bites get better on their own, even if it takes a couple of months. So it's always a good idea to see a doctor for proper treatment.
The black widow is easily identified by its shiny black body and orange hourglass shape under itsa belly; it's a similar size to the brown recluse spider. Most people who have been bitten by a black widow don't even know it until they feel the symptoms. But if you stay alert you’ll be able to see one of the many warning signs that tell you you’ve been bitten by a black widow – and give you enough time to act before things get too serious.
The venom (poison) in a black widow bite causes a reaction throughout your body, not just around the bite area. You may get painful cramps within a few hours that may make you feel achy all over; these can spread to include abdominal cramping, which may be severe. You may also have nausea, vomiting, chills, fever and headache. If you show any of these symptoms, get to the hospital immediately.
For most kinds of bug bites and stings, medicines called antihistamines will help stop the itching and lessen the swelling; another type of medication called acetaminophen can give you a break from any pain you may experience. Ibuprofen can help reduce swelling while relieving some pain. Some people use soothing creams to make the itching better. If bites or stings get infected or if an open sore or blister just won’t heal, make an appointment with your doctor.
In terms of ticks, you can get rid of them by grabbing a pair of tweezers as soon as you notice them. If you remove them from your skin within two days you’ll be less likely to catch anything (like Lyme disease) from them. Always be sure to pull a tick out from the head, which is closest to your skin, to be certain you remove the whole thing. Have someone help you get the hard-to-reach places of your body, and pull each tick out very slowly. After, clean your skin with soap and water. atever you do, don’t ever try to burn a tick off of your skin. The flame from the fire will only make a tick mad and that will cause it to burrow and dig even deeper into your skin. When you've pulled the tick out, put it in a jar of rubbing alcohol to kill it. You may even want to put it in a glass jar or container so you can show the doctor exactly what bit you.
After a bee sting check to see if the insect left its stinger behind. If it did, get it out of your skin as soon as possible to reduce the chances of being exposed to any venom there may be in it. Wash the sting or bite with soap and water and keep it clean. Apply some calamine lotion, put an ice pack on the area for 15 minutes every few hours or so or cover the sting with a cold compress. If you’re allergic to bee stings, see your doctor for a prescription for an epinephrine kit. If used immediately after a bee attack, this shot will stop the allergic reaction before it starts, which could save your life. An epinephrine kit is easy to use; your doctor or pharmacist will explain how. If you're severely allergic to bug bites and stings, talk to a doctor about getting venom immunotherapy (shots) from an allergist.
How do you know when a sting or bite is too much for you to handle alone? If you have any of the following symptoms of an allergic reaction get to the nearest hospital’s emergency room right away:
- shortness of breath
- redness or hives over most of your body
- swelling of the face, lips, or tongue
- feeling like your throat is closing up
- muscle aches or cramps
If you get bitten by a spider but you’re not sure what kind, pay close attention to your own body’s reaction to the bite. If you're feeling sick and have cramps get to the ER immediately. If you somehow managed to kill the spider that bit you safely, take it with you so doctors can see what variety it was and treat you accordingly.
You don’t have to sit around and wait to be sampled like a bug buffet; here are some steps you can take to protect yourself:
- If you have pets that go outdoors, treat them and your entire house (all carpets and furniture) regularly with during warmer months. Keeping your carpets clean by vacuuming regularly can help, too.
- Avoid mosquitoes by staying away from areas where they breed, like still pools or ponds or any containers or spaces that are filled with motionless water, especially during hot weather. Remove standing water from birdbaths, buckets, kid pools, etc. Try to stay inside when mosquitoes are most active (at dawn and dusk) and wear insect repellent when you’re outside.
- If you’re camping or hiking in heavily wooded areas you need to watch out for ticks. You can do this by taking turns with friends and family checking one another for ticks every few hours. Remove any ticks you find immediately. The most important places to check are behind your ears, on your scalp, on the back of your neck, in your armpits and behind your knees. If you have a pet with you, check your pet, too! Use tick products on pets to prevent them from being bitten.
- Use insect repellent when spending time outdoors camping, hiking or on the beach. Repellents that contain 10% to 30% DEET are approved for mosquitoes, ticks and some other bugs. Repellents that contain picaridin or oil of lemon eucalyptus work against mosquitoes. Always reapply insect repellent after swimming or sweating heavily.
- When you’re in the woods tuck in your clothes and try to keep your skin covered. Wear shoes and socks when walking on grass, even it's just for a minute. Bees and wasps can sting your unprotected feet.
- Wear gloves if you're gardening.
- Don't disturb bee or wasp nests.
- Don't swat at buzzing insects; they may sting you if they feel threatened or scared.
- Be aware that spiders might be hiding in undisturbed piles of wood, storage boxes or corners behind furniture.