What Bit Me!? Risks From Common Insect Bites

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Insect Bites & Allergy

Going buggy over springtime pests? You’re not alone. Each year, a huge variety of insects come out of the woodwork (sometimes literally) to bug us with their pesky bites.

But do they pose a threat, especially to people prone to allergic reactions?

Some insects do pose real threats — Lyme disease from ticks, West Nile virus from mosquitoes, or life-threatening reactions to bee stings. But most bug bites in North America are just a nuisance.

How itchy or big the welt depends in part on your own skin, how much of the chemical histamine it harbors. Some people really are mosquito magnets. There is always one in the crowd, somewhat predictable of the arrival of mosquitoes to attack him “One seems to be the target of the mosquitoes the most.”But no, most of the bites that we blame on spiders are not from them at all.

In fact, chances are you won’t be able to tell the culprit unless you catch it in the act. Yet doctors and entomologists alike field calls asking, ‘What bit me?’

Mosquito bites probably are the most common. Sure we’ve been told to watch out for them at dusk and dawn. But the Asian tiger mosquito — a fairly recent immigrant — bites all day long. It’s more aggressive than native species, Coddington says.

There are about 3,500 mosquito species worldwide and most of them don’t bite humans, preferring other animals instead. But those who do like humans, may be attracted by perfumes, alcohol, sweat,  and also dark clothing.

Bedbugs are the latest headline-maker. Researchers can’t explain why they’ve suddenly disappeared in many U.S. cities after all but vanishing in the 1940s and ’50s. However, when they’re in a house or building, they’re famously hard to extirpate. You won’t feel their needle-like bite, however you may see a line of red spots in the beginning of the next day.

Not so with horse flies and black flies. They’ll chase any blood meal.

Most people face no risk other than infection from scratching, but there are some important exceptions:


Blacklegged tick species, commonly called deer ticks, that are as small as poppy seeds, can transmit Lyme disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counted more than 35,000 confirmed or probable cases of Lyme in 2009, the latest data available.

These ticks are most active from May through July, and are most common in the Northeast, mid-Atlantic, upper Midwest and Pacific coast.

If a tick’s been biting for less than 24 hours, chances of infection are small. So do a daily tick check. And the CDC recommends using insect repellent with DEET. Antibiotics may easily cure most people of Lyme. But other than Lyme’s hallmark , red rash, early symptoms are vague and flu-like. For people who do not receive treatment, it is possible they develop arthritis, meningitis, and some other serious diseases.

Different tick species around the country can transmit additional diseases, such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tickborne relapsing fever, and STARI, or Southern tick-associated rash illness.


West Nile virus is the main mosquito concern in the U.S. Although cases have dropped in the last decade, the CDC recorded 45 deaths from West Nile last year.

Severe symptoms fortunately are rare but include high fever, neck stiffness, dizziness,  muscle weakness , coma and paralysis, and the neurological effects may sometimes be permanent.

To avoid mosquitoes, the CDC advises wearing insect repellent containing DEET, picaridin or oil of lemon eucalyptus. Empty standing water where mosquitoes breed.

Bees and other insects

At least 40 people a year die from allergic reactions to stings from bees or other insects, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.

Potentially life-threatening reactions occur in fewer than 1% of children and 3% of adults. But seek care quickly for signs of an emergency, such as shortness of breath, swelling on the neck or face,  or feeling dizzy. People who know they’re allergic should carry an EpiPen.


Bites from a black widow or brown recluse may need medical care, in spite of the fact that fatalities are extraordinarily uncommon and rare. You may not feel the black widow’s bite, but within almost an an hour the pain spreads through the abdomen, with cramping or stiffening of the abdominal muscles.

Poison centers have a stock of antivenoms available, but most people do just fine with muscle relaxants and other care. A brown recluse bite ultimately forms an ulcer-like lesion that may get fairly large but usually requires only good simple wound care.

But other infections can be mistaken for these bites. If possible, bring in the suspect spider when you visit your doctor to help experts with identification of the wound.

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