How to Identify Common Bug Bites

Angry ant biting human skin

What’s the worst thing that can happen to you on the trail?

Those whose idea of the great outdoors is a barbeque in their backyard have fervent imaginations. You could be chased by a bear, they’ll say. Or you could stand on a snake. Or stumble upon the lair of lynx cubs with a mother whose razor claws and ferocious maternal instinct makes Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones look like a pacifist.

As terrifying as those scenarios are, a far more likely source of terror on the trail is provided by organisms no bigger than your fingernail.

Bugs bug us all. From the low-level annoyance of itchy bites to the potential transference of Lyme Disease, a serious illness, bugs can make life on the trail a misery.

Bug bites are the bug bear of many, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Follow the tips in this guide to minimise the chances of bugs spoiling your outdoor adventure.

Common Insect Bites

Flea Bites

flea bites mans leg

Fleas are found all over the world and in every part of the USA. Check out this map on Web MD.com for an overview of flea activity levels in your state.

They’re particularly good at attaching themselves to animals (domesticated and wild) but won’t pass up the opportunity to feast on human skin either.

Flea bites leave small, circular red marks on the skin and usually appear in groups of three or four. They are almost always harmless but can be itchy and irritable (1).

Fly Bites

There are an abundance of different species of fly, some more likely to bite than others, and the symptoms of the bites vary by type according to healthline.com.

Sand Flies

Fans of tropical weather, sand flies are a threat in the southern states and have a reputation for providing painful bites that cause red bumps or blisters. Worse yet, the bumps can become infected, inflamed or cause dermatitis.

Black Flies  

Black flies can be found in all US states and are particularly fond of water so watch out for them by lakes and other inland water sources. With no regard for human vanity black flies bite at the face, leaving anything from “a slight swelling to a swollen bump the size of a golf ball.” (2) Black fly fever, marked by headaches, nausea and fever, is a reported complication of some bites.

Biting Midges

These miniscule pests can ruin an outdoors trip in no time! Found throughout the US but “particularly bad along the shores of oceans, lakes, ponds and rivers,” (3) biting midges leave small, itchy red welts on the skin that will worsen if scratched.

Tick Bites

tick biting man's arm

Ticks are “small bloodsucking parasites” (4) that live in tall grass and shrubs and could attach themselves to you as you wade through vegetation. Their bites are miniscule and can be tough to detect, but one potential complication has clear symptoms to watch out for. It’s called Lyme Disease…

Lyme Disease

Lyme borreliosis from a tick bite

Lyme Disease is a bacterial infection solely passed on to humans via tick bites. According to a specialist Lyme Disease website “extreme tiredness, muscle pain, muscle weakness, joint pain, upset digestive system, headache, disturbances of the central nervous system and a poor sleep pattern” are symptoms of the disease.

A distinctive “bull’s eye” rash (a circle surrounded by an expanded circle) may also appear around the tick bite. Visit your doctor immediately if you think you may have Lyme Disease. 

Mosquito Bites

mosquito bites

Mosquitos are another variety of bug whose bites can land you in serious trouble. Malaria, West Nile Virus and, most recently, the Zika Virus have all been passed on through mosquito bites.

Mosquitos love to bite (they’re bloodsuckers, that’s what they do) and leave itchy red bumps on the skin. Everyday Health report around 1,500 cases of malaria per year in the USA and 2,000 cases of West Nile Virus. The numbers are even lower for Zika Virus, but with birth defects a potential complication there’s every incentive to protect yourself from mosquito bites.

Spider Bites

Wolf spider on a leaf

The first thing to say about spider bites is that the vast majority are completely harmless, with only mild irritation of the skin likely to result (5).

Right, now we’ve made a token attempt to be rational let’s indulge our deepest, darkest arachnophobia. Survival Life identify a number of common spiders with poisonous bites as US residents.

Tarantulas, perhaps the most feared, are found in southern states in dry grassland or desert terrain.

The Brown Recluse Spider is more common in the south and can cause significant damage with its bite.

Last but not least, the Black Widow, identifiable by its shiny black colour and a red/orange dot, lives in dark places. Be wary on the trail when turning over stones, lifting wood from the ground or near tree stumps – all common sites for Black Widows.

Visit the Survival Life website for information on other poisonous US spiders. The best advice appears to be this: if you think you’ve been bitten by a spider and begin to feel unwell seek urgent medical attention.

Head Lice

Even thinking about head lice can make your scalp itch. The CDC website reports that “6 million to 12 million (head lice) infestations occur each year in the United States” but that these are mostly among children aged 3-11. The bites don’t spread disease but are itchy and irritable – particularly in the dark when lice are more active.

Bee / Wasp / Hornets

Wasp on a flower

Onto the stingers now. Bees, wasps and hornets are all more active in the summer and pose little risk in isolation. However, if you spot a hive or colony in the wild give it a wide berth as a “colony can become defensive and attack en masse” if the insects believe you are a threat to it, according to pestworld.org.

Pestworld note that half a million people a year head to the emergency room as a result of contact with stinging insects. The cause is almost always an en-masse defensive attack or an allergic response to a sting.

Ants

Angry ant biting human skin

Ant bites are famously painful and for good reason. Fire ants bite and sting, just to make sure you get the message, while carpenter ants “spray formic acid into the bite” (6). That’s just vindictive.

Though painful the bites usually do little long term damage, but resist scratching them as opening a bite can lead to infection.

Chiggers

Chiggers are a type of mite whose modus operandi is to latch onto your skin, make tiny holes in it with their claws then “inject saliva that turns some of your cells into mush” (7). Nice.

Chiggers are found all around the world and are particularly fond of wet areas in fields, forests and by lakes and streams. Their bites are harmless in the long run but can be itchy for a couple of days and may present as red bumps or a rash around the affected area.

Tips on Avoiding Bug Bites

So how do you stop the bugs from biting? Nothing is foolproof – bugs are crafty and persistent – but there are a number of simple steps you can take to minimise the risk of skin irritations.

Cover up as much as possible

One of the problems with bugs is that they can be more active in the summer – the time of year when you’re likely to be showing most skin.

The best first defence against bug bites is to wear loose clothing that covers your skin. Light colours will help too as any bugs that have attached themselves to your clothing or snuck underneath are more likely to be spotted (8).

Mosquito expert Jonathan Day, speaking to prevention.com, notes that tightly woven clothes like “high-tech athletic apparel” and any clothing with a sun protection rating are harder for bugs to penetrate.   

Wearing light clothes that offer sun protection in summer isn’t a bad idea anyway. What a bonus that they block bugs!

Another way to protect yourself is to put yet another layer of fabric between you and biting bugs – a mosquito net. Nets come in all shapes and sizes these days. 

Avoid going out at dusk

Ever wondered why bugs seem to be so much more annoying in the evening? According to Jonathan Day it’s because “because the wind typically dissipates as the sun rises and sets” (9).

Mosquitos and biting midges are among the bugs who dislike wind so the stillness of evenings makes for a bug rush hour! Consider getting out and about during the day and staying indoors during heavy bug traffic! 

Avoid certain areas where they are most common

Avoiding bugs isn’t always possible but, if you know your bugs, you should be able to minimise the chances of unpleasant encounters.

Mosquitos breed around still pools and ponds so it’s best to avoid these in warm weather (10).

Ticks are a threat in high grass so stick to paths in these areas if possible. If you do have to wade through an area where ticks are a hazard check your legs and remove any insects from your clothes or skin as soon as you reach clear ground.  

Use Insect Repellent

The Centre for Disease Control and Protection (who should know) recommend “EPA-registered insect repellents that contain at least 20% DEET.” There has been some controversy around DEET as the chemical is toxic (if you ingest it), but when the Environmental Working Group tested various bug sprays they found that its “effectiveness at preventing bites is approached by only a few other repellent ingredients.”

If you’ve exhausted all the other options and the bugs are still bothering you, a spray containing DEET is surely a preferable option to succumbing to the bugs. Just make sure to follow the instructions for safe use.

What To Do If You Are Bitten

Time for a little detective work. You’ve been bitten and you want to know what by. Here’s how to go about it.

Hunt for the Suspect

Take a look at the bite mark or rash. Does it display any of the distinctive features mentioned in the first section of this guide or illustrated in the photographs here?

You may have come face to face with the bug when you felt its bite. If so check out photos of some common bugs here to see if you can pick the guilty party out of a line-up.

Don’t Itch!

Whether you’re able to identify the culprit or not remember that most bug bites are absolutely harmless. If the only symptom of the bite is a slight itchiness/irritation of the skin applying a cream that contains hydrocortisone or lidocaine should soothe the area (11).

Whatever you do, DON’T ITCH! Bites can become infected or irritated further if scratched so resist the impulse at all costs.  

More Significant Symptoms

When should a bug bite cause greater concern?

“Significant pain, swelling, and bruising are all signs that a bite may be serious,” dermatologist Dr. Joshua Zeichner told the Huffington Post. If you have any of these symptoms it’s best to get checked by a doctor.

You’ll also want to visit a doctor if you show any signs of the various “complications” that can result from tick and mosquito bites. The red target rash associated with Lyme Disease and the feverish symptoms of Malaria, Zika Virus and West Nile Virus should cause concern if they appear shortly after a skin irritation or an outdoors adventure.

In rare, extremely serious cases you may have to race to ER. Dr. Margaret Parsons lists “symptoms like the sensation that your throat is closing, chest pain, a persistent racing heartbeat, dizziness and vomiting” (12) as triggers that should lead you to seek immediate medical attention – they may be signs of a severe allergic reaction.

Frequently Asked Questions

What bug bites behind the ear?

If you’ve been bitten behind the ear the most likely culprit is a head louse as these like to hide “behind the ears or at the neck area” (13).

What bug bites scab over?

Any ones you open up by scratching. Don’t scratch!

What bug bites cause fever?

Mosquito bites can, in rare cases, lead to Malaria, Zika Virus and West Nile Virus, all of which produce feverish symptoms.

Lyme Disease, a potential complication of tick bites, can also result in a fever, as can poisonous bites by spiders (14).

What bug bites in a triangle shape?

Bed bugs “bite in a triangular shape, usually in 3s” (15) so if your bites form a triangle it might be time to fumigate your bed!

What bug bites leave scars?

Fire ant bites are known to leave scars on occasion (16) as are any bug bites that are excessively scratched.

How long do bug bites last?

Most irritations clear up anywhere between a few hours and a few days after the bite (17).

Is my bite infected?

Pus or increasing pain, swelling or redness” are telltale signs of wound infections and should prompt you to seek medical attention.

Is it normal for a bite to bruise?

No. If bruising appears around a bite have it checked by your doctor.

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