Insect Bites and Stings

In the United States, ants sting 9.3 million people each year. Wasps, bees and spiders account for more than a million stings and bites annually. Sometimes that pesky mosquito bite needs nothing more than a little hydrocortisone cream and time to heal. But occasionally, it’s not so simple.

While most bug bites and stings are harmless, some can be dangerous if we don’t treat them properly – especially if you have an undiagnosed allergy to a particular venom, or if the bug is a disease carrier. According to the Center for Disease Control, insect bites (including spider bites) accounted for 36,100 non-fatal injuries and illnesses involving time away from work between 1992 and 1997. That’s more than 7,000 cases per year, and there is no indication that the number has decreased since that time.

In extreme cases, a reaction to a bite or sting can cause a trip to a hospital emergency room. Dr. Margaret Parsons, dermatologist and associate clinical professor of dermatology at the University of California, Davis, advises people to go to the emergency room after being stung or bitten if they experience the sensation that the throat is closing, chest pain, a persistent racing heartbeat, dizziness or vomiting.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, the most common bites and stings in the United States come from mosquitoes, fleas, spiders, bees, wasps, hornets, biting flies, mites, ticks, fire ants and bedbugs. Tick bites have the potential to carry Lyme disease. Spider bites can cause serious, localized skin destruction, depending on the species. Several mosquito species carry and transmit the West Nile virus. West Nile is tricky since between 70 and 80 percent of people don’t exhibit symptoms once they’re infected. But in severe cases, patients will typically experience headaches, body aches, joint pain, vomiting, diarrhea and/or rash. Hospitalization to provide fluids intravenously and pain medication may be necessary in these cases.

Types of insect bite and sting reactions include:


Within minutes of a bite or sting, localized inflammation occurs. With bee and wasp stings, pain may range from mild to severe. In some cases, swelling can last from 48 hours to one week.

Toxic Systemic

Caused by venom injections, this reaction can be difficult to distinguish from systemic allergic reactions because the signs and symptoms are similar.

Systemic Allergic

This Type I hypersensitivity causes an immediate and obvious reaction resulting in skin hives or deep tissue swelling.


This Type III hypersensitivity has a delayed reaction that can lead to serum sickness, which typically occurs days or weeks after the sting or bite. Serum sickness can cause inflammation of different organ systems, affecting the blood vessels, nerves, brain or kidneys. It can also cause clotting abnormalities.

Fall is an active time for stinging insects and spiders. Take precautions to prevent bites and stings:

  • Avoid scented insect repellents and other products with sweet fragrances;
  • Avoid bright-colored clothes;
  • Tuck in your shirt and pant cuffs;
  • Wear long-sleeved shirts; and
  • Cover all drinks and containers.

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