Identifying Bug Bites: How to Figure Out What Bit You

Updated: May 09, 2024

Mosquito bites are distressingly familiar, but what about all those other mysterious, red, itchy spots that show up in summer? We asked dermatologists for a handy bite guide to help you identify what was doing the chewing.

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How to identify bug bites

how to identify bee stings
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1. Bees

While bees make most people scream, thrash their arms, and run, the ‘lil buzzers aren’t really out to get you. In fact, they’d rather not bother with you at all, provided you leave them alone. However, if you do get stung by a bee, you’ll end up with a hive-like pink bump that itches—once it stops throbbing, says Tsippora Shainhouse, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist in Beverly Hills. If the stinger is still visible, try scraping it gently with a credit card to remove it. Don’t pinch the stinger with your fingers or tweezers or you could squeeze more venom into your skin, she says.

How to treat a bee sting: “Treatment can include cool soaks, calamine lotion, oral histamines like Benadryl, and maybe meat tenderizer,” says Dr. Shainhouse. An enzyme in the tenderizer called papain may help break down the substance in venom that causes pain. “Another theory is that the venom is acidic and when it combines with the alkaline tenderizer, it neutralizes it and reduces the pain,” says Dr. Shainhouse. Try a 4:1 ratio of water to meat tenderizer to make a paste. Signs that you’re allergic to bee stings can be difficulty breathing, swallowing, vomiting, diarrhea, weakness, confusion, or sweating. If you start to notice symptoms of an allergy after a bee sting, call 911 immediately.

how to identify tick bites
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2. Tick

“The concern with tick bites is that they can be a vector for transmitting other infections, including Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever,” says Dr. Shainhouse. The trouble is, they are transmitted by different types of ticks and you probably won’t see any visible sign of a tick bite the same day it occurs, especially if the tick is in the nymph stage. If a rash develops, it’s usually within a few days of the bite. “The classic bulls-eye rash can be single or multiple rings,” says Dr. Shainhouse, “and is characteristic of a Borrelia burgdorferi and Borrelia mayonii infection, a spirochete that can be transmitted via a bite from the Ixodes deer tick. It can develop one to two weeks after you are bitten.” However, identifying bug bites from ticks can be difficult. The rash may not appear as a bulls-eye: It could show up solid red or not at all, despite the fact you’re infected. You may not even feel sick with this rash, but fevers and headaches could develop.

How to treat a tick bite: “It must be treated with a 20-day course of oral antibiotics as soon as possible,” warns Dr. Shainhouse. Thankfully, not all tick bites automatically mean you’ll get Lyme disease. Sometimes, treatment isn’t required beyond removing the tick but it is important to show your medical care professional so the tick can be identified and determine if you are at risk for getting an infection.

how to identify mosquito bites
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3. Mosquitoes

It seems impossible to sail through summer without a “skeeter” bite, and yes—some people are more attractive to the flying pests than others. According to dermatologist Doris Day, MD, FAAD, a clinical associate professor in the Department of Dermatology at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, mosquitoes are attracted to people with type O blood, lactic acid, and urea in sweat. Drinking beer outdoors or even just wearing dark clothing can make you more desirable to mosquitoes. Besides being a nuisance, the mosquitoes can transmit serious infectious diseases. “They carry everything from West Nile virus to Chikungunya to Zika,” says Dr. Day. If you get bit by a mosquito, the bite will be a small, puffy white bump with a red dot in the middle. It may turn hard and reddish the following day.

How to treat a mosquito bite: It feels so good to scratch it, but try to resist the urge. Itching can lead to infection or scarring at the site. Instead, Dr. Day has some better advice. “Try applying a cold pack, aloe and cortisone cream or gel to help minimize itch.”

how to identify flea bites on human skin
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4. Fleas

Prevention is the best cure, so be sure to treat your pets against fleas. Fleas can cause painful and irritating bites, and can transmit tapeworm. Without treatment, fleas will enjoy the free all-you-eat buffet you and your furry friends provide. They don’t fly, but they can jump—especially onto your ankles and calves. “Flea bites are usually tiny crusted red bumps on the lower legs,” says Valerie Goldburt, MD, PhD, with Advanced Dermatology PC in New York.

How to treat flea bites: “The bumps will be very itchy, so treat them with topical cortisone and soothing creams,” Dr. Goldburt advises. She recommends keeping the creams in the fridge so they’re cool. “Or use ice cubes, which slow nerve transmission and can help with itching.” If you notice these types of bug bites, talk to your vet about flea control, and call a pest control expert if you suspect flea infestation.

how to identify brown recluse spider bites on human skin
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5. Brown recluse spider

The good news about the brown recluse spider is its personality is pretty true to its name—it’s shy and rarely bites unless provoked. Nonetheless, this spider poses a dangerous threat. Found in the south and central United States, the brown recluse prefers dark, sheltered spaces like basements and sheds. If you disturbed a brown recluse and it bit you, you may not realize it right away. “There’s usually a single bite that turns into a red patch with possible blistering,” says Dr. Goldburt. “Symptoms can vary from slight to extremely intense itching and pain. Some bites can cause necrosis, where the tissue turns dark.”

How to treat a brown recluse spider bite: “A bite from a brown recluse spider can become a medical emergency where affected tissue needs to be removed,” Dr. Goldburt says. “You should see a doctor if you suspect a brown recluse spider bite.”

how to identify bed bug bites on human skin
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6. Bed bugs

“Bedbug bites typically appear as ‘breakfast, lunch, and dinner’ lesions,” notes Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research in Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. What that means is bed bugs typically bite the skin and then move on before biting again, leaving a linear distribution of bites. “The bites typically occur on the arms and the legs, as this is the skin exposed to the bed where the bugs have infested,” says Dr. Zeichner.

How to treat bed bug bites: Luckily, bed bug bites will go away on their own after a few days. If the urge to scratch drives you crazy, Dr. Zeichner recommends using an over-the-counter hydrocortisone ointment to reduce inflammation and itch.

how to identify chigger bites on human skin
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7. Chiggers

You’re not likely to see these little biters but you’ll feel them later. Chiggers are not considered insects, but are actually members of the arachnid family, which includes ticks and spiders. They don’t fly, but that doesn’t stop them from biting you if you’re around grassy areas, a golf course, a baseball field, or a playground. Oddly enough, it’s only the baby chiggers that bite—or shall we say teethe—on your skin. They crawl on your clothing until they find an open area of skin and then it’s chomping time. “Chigger bites leave behind reddish bumps, with a brighter red dot in the center of each bump. These bumps also resemble pimples or hives,” says Angela Lamb, MD, director of the Westside Mount Sinai Dermatology Faculty Practice in New York City and an associate professor of dermatology.

How to treat chigger bites: To get relief, Dr. Lamb recommends taking a cool shower or washing the bite with soap and water. “To relieve the symptoms of itching or burning, I recommend applying cortisone cream or a topical treatment like After Bite, which uses a mix of soothing ingredients to relieve itch. For kids—and adults with sensitive skin—I recommend using After Bite Kids, a gentle, non-stinging cream that provides instant relief for symptoms of discomfort.”

how to identify black widow spider bites
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8. Black widow spider

Found in warm dry areas of the southern and western United States, the black widow has a distinctive red hourglass shape on its abdomen. Shy and fond of dark corners, the black widow delivers a bite that is immediately painful. You’ll have swelling and redness at the site and you may see two fang marks when you identify bug bites from these spiders. Within eight hours, your muscles may become stiff, and you could experience nausea, dizziness, difficulty breathing, rash, itching, tremors, and leg paralysis.

How to treat a black widow spider bite: If a child has been bitten, get to the ER quickly as the spiders can be fatal to young ones. You can wash the area with cold water and soap and then ice for 10 minutes on and 10 minutes off until you get medical attention.

how to identify fire ant bites on human skin
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9. Fire ant

They may be small, but fire ants are highly aggressive and deliver a painful bite. They’re also resilient. Not even the floodwaters of a 2017 tropical storm deterred them; the colony forms a loose ball and floats until the crew finds dry land. Generally, fire ants are found throughout the southeastern and southwestern United States. Their nests turn up on lawns, in parks, and pastures. “Fire ant stings can be identified by the groups of swollen red spots that appear on the skin and resemble pus-filled pimples. These round spots will often blister at the top shortly after the sting occurs,” says Dr. Lamb.

How to treat fire ant bites: Treat these bites as you would chiggers and take a cool shower, use soap and water, and try topical treatments like After Bite.

essential oil bottle on its side with mint leaves on a light blue surface
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Looking for natural itch relief?

The main symptom of bug bites is severe itching. As good as scratching feels, you want to save your skin and your sanity and not stop scratching. Essential oils like citrus, peppermint, and eucalyptus can provide soothing relief for your skin. For additional relief, Will Cole, DC, a functional medicine practitioner in Monroeville, Pennsylvania, has a couple of personal favorites, like baking soda and water. “Just mix together to form a paste and spread over the bites. It may sting a little but leave on for a few minutes before rinsing off,” says Dr. Cole. His other suggestion is a warm bath. “Soaking in a warm tub with magnesium powder is a great relaxing way to soothe the itch.”