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Common Summer Bug Bites: When to Worry (and Not to Worry)

August 3, 2021

Some summer days, it seems like you can’t take two steps outside without getting bit.

Fortunately, in the South Jersey area, there aren’t too many creepy crawlies to be concerned with. Most bites (or stings) are mild and easily manageable; however, when we least expect it, a complication can arise.

Below, Family Nurse Practitioner Molly Hammond, APN, of Woodbury Primary & Specialty Care, explains how to care for and prevent bug bites, as well as what it looks like when something goes wrong.

When Not to Worry:

Between mosquitos, bees, horseflies (or greenheads), ticks, and small, house spiders, most bug bites are short-lived and present with some redness, swelling, itching, and/or burning, explains Hammond.

The Best Way to Alleviate Symptoms:

The gold standard treatment for most bug bites is over-the-counter (OTC) medications, sprays, and creams. Calamine and antihistamines (i.e., Benadryl) can reduce itch and ice can help with any initial swelling.

When to Worry:

Sometimes the symptoms of a bug bite go beyond what’s normal and warrant medical attention. Hammond recommends keeping an eye out for:

Infection: Bug bites can easily become infected if the top layer of skin is broken from scratching or squeezing (two things to be avoided). Bacteria from under the fingernails can be introduced into the skin. Signs of a minor infection would be significant redness, swelling, firmness, and pain. These can be managed at home with thorough cleansing (soap and water), topical antibiotic ointment, and OTC pain medication (i.e., ibuprofen or acetaminophen), if needed.

A more severe infection may progress into an abscess (a puss-filled pocket), which would require medical attention. If there’s concern for spreading, an oral antibiotic may be prescribed.

Allergy: Allergic reactions to bug bites are fairly common, particularly with bees. If you’ve never been stung, finding out you are allergic may come as a shock. A mild allergy may trigger hives (red, scratchy splotches over the body), which can be treated with an OTC oral or topical antihistamine. A severe reaction causes breathing difficulties/respiratory distress; if this is suspected, you should go to your nearest emergency room as soon as possible.

Necrosis: Necrotic skin, or dead skin cells, can result from a spider’s venom. If you’re washing a bug bite, and you notice there are areas of black that don’t come clean with soap and water, that is a sign. Skin necrosis is often mild and will leave a small scar, but you should contact your primary care provider to have it checked out to be safe. They may help you debride it (remove dead tissue) to help with the healing process.

Additionally, there is one bite that is always a cause for concern: the brown recluse spider, notes Hammond. “The brown recluse is the most dangerous spider in our region. It rarely causes death, but it can make people very sick – with fever, nausea, and muscle pain. In rare cases – in some children and immunocompromised individuals – loss of limbs is possible from severe necrosis. You should seek medical care urgently if you believe you’ve been bit by a brown recluse.”

Tips for Prevention:

Always keep age-appropriate insect repellent and a First Aid kit on hand, and research the areas you are travelling too, says Hammond. “Areas near standing water are likely to be more populated with mosquitos and flies. If possible, wear breathable clothes that cover your skin more. If not, spray on that repellent. While it’s not a 100 percent guaranteed prevention, it can deter a lot of bugs.”

Young kids may be more tempted to scratch/disturb any bites they do get, so make sure you have a calamine or antihistamine product packed, as well, adds Hammond. If you/your child has a known allergy, make sure epi pens aren’t expired.

Why Some People Get Bit More Than Others:

There are a lot of myths and misconceptions surrounding this topic, says Hammond. Is it blood type? Could it be a vitamin deficiency? Do we smell sweet?

Scientists are still studying why some get bit more often than others, but it appears to be a combination of things. What we know currently is that pheromones (genetically determined body odor), as well as a person’s microbiota (naturally occurring, normal bacteria on the skin) can be alluring to bugs, explains Hammond.

“Mosquitoes also seek out carbon dioxide, which is what we exhale. More of this is released with exercise and pregnancy, which attracts more insects,” added Hammond. “Wearing dark clothing (green, black, or red) makes someone more visible to these pests, so consider wearing lighter colors. Plus, some evidence shows that certain blood types can be more attractive; 87 percent of us release a scent that indicate to mosquitoes that type O is the most attractive.”

While some bugs bites can be a cause for concern, at the end of the day, we shouldn’t let them deter us from going outdoors, continues Hammond. There are plenty of ways to prevent, treat, and keep a close eye on them.

For more information on Primary & Specialty Care services offered at Jefferson Health – New Jersey, click HERE or call 844-542-2273.