Identifying Bug Bites: How to Figure Out What Bit You

Updated: Oct. 03, 2023

What are all those mysterious red itchy spots that turn up in summer? We asked dermatologists for a guide on identifying bug bites.

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How to Figure Out What Bit You

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 stung or gnawed you. Your treatment — and your misery — will depend on it. Here are photo guides to bugs and their bites along with what to do about the welts.

Plus, learn about these 14 “harmless” bugs you didn’t know could bite you.

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A bee sting of the western honey bee (Apis mellifera) in human skin


While bees make most people scream, thrash their arms and run, the ‘lil buzzers aren’t really out to get you. They’d rather not bother with you at all, provided you leave them alone. But if you do get stung, you’ll end up with a hive-like pink bump that itches once it stops throbbing, says Tsippora Shainhouse, M.D., 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, she says, or you could squeeze more venom into your skin. “Treatment can include cool soaks, calamine lotion, oral histamines like Benadryl, and maybe meat tenderizer,” says Shainhouse. An enzyme in the tenderizer called papain may help break down the substance in venom that causes pain. Here are 10 crazy things you didn’t know about bees.

“Another theory is that the venom is acidic and when it combines with the alkaline tenderizer, it neutralizes it and reduces the pain,” says Shainhouse. Try a four-to-one 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; call 911 immediately. Learn these 10 easy home remedies for bug bites.

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Closeup of a tick burrowing into skin


“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 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 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 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.” Here’s how to safely remove a tick.

However, identifying tick bites can be difficult. The rash may not appear as a bulls-eye; it could show up solid red or not at all. You may not even feel sick with this rash, but fevers and headaches could develop. “It must be treated with a 20-day course of oral antibiotics as soon as possible,” warns 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 the tick to your medical care professional so it can be identified, and to determine if you are at risk for an infection. Here are some tick repellents that really work.

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Close up of irritated mosquito bites


It seems impossible to sail through summer without a “skeeter” bite. And yes, the flying pests are attracted to some people more than others. According to dermatologist Doris Day, M.D., FAAD, of Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, mosquitoes are attracted to people with type O blood, lactic acid and urea in sweat. Sadly, drinking beer outdoors or just wearing dark clothing can make you more desirable to these biting pests.

Besides being a nuisance (that whining noise around your ears is maddening!), the mosquito can transmit infectious diseases. “They carry everything from West Nile virus to Chikungunya to Zika,” says Day. If bitten, you’ll see a small, puffy white bump with a red dot in the middle. It may turn hard and reddish the following day.

It feels so good to scratch it, but stop it right now: Itching can lead to infection or scarring at the site. Day has some better advice. “Try applying a cold pack, aloe and cortisone cream or gel to help minimize itch,” she says. For mosquito bite prevention, try these tips that are proven to ward off mosquitoes.

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close up of flea bites on human skin


Prevention is the best cure, so treat your pets against fleas. These nasty critters (the fleas, not your pets) cause painful and irritating bites and can even transmit tapeworm. Without treatment, fleas will enjoy the free all-you-eat buffet you and your furry friends provide.

They don’t fly but wow can they can jump, especially onto your ankles and calves. “Flea bites are usually tiny crusted red bumps on the lower legs,” says Valerie Goldburt, M.D., Ph.D., with Advanced Dermatology PC in New York. “The bumps will be very itchy, so treat them with topical cortisone and soothing creams.” She recommends keeping the creams the fridge so they’re cool. “Or use ice cubes, which slow down nerve transmission and can help with itching,” she says.

If you notice these types of bug bites, talk to your vet about flea control. Call a pest control expert if you suspect flea infestation.

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brown recluse spider bite on human skin

Brown Recluse Spider

The good news about this spider is, its personality is true to its name — they’re shy and rarely bite 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 bites you, you may not realize it right away. “There’s usually a single bite that turns into a red patch with possible blistering,” says Goldburt. “Symptoms can vary from slight to extremely intense itching and pain.” This is why you should never kill a house spider.

Some bites can cause necrosis, where the tissue turns dark. This can become a medical emergency where affected tissue needs to be removed. You should see a doctor if you suspect a brown recluse spider bite. Keep spiders and other pesky bugs out of your house by following these ways to bug-proof your home.

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magnification of a bed bug on human skin

Bed Bugs

All the media coverage of bed bugs in hotels a few years back put everyone on high alert. While you may not hear as much about them these days, you’ll still want to know how to recognize the signs of bed bug infestations and identifying bug bites of this type.

“Bedbug bites typically appear as ‘breakfast, lunch, and dinner’ lesions,” notes Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. That means the 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 Zeichner.

Luckily, bed bug bites will go away on their own after a few days, If the urge to scratch is driving you crazy, he recommends using an over-the-counter hydrocortisone ointment to reduce inflammation and itch. Is it possible to treat your home yourself? Here’s our DIY guide to getting rid of bedbugs.

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chigger bites on human skin


You’re not likely to see these little biters but you’ll feel them later. They’re 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, baseball field or 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, M.D., director of the Westside Mount Sinai Dermatology Faculty Practice in New York City.

To get relief, 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 provide itch relief,” she says. “For kids — and adults with sensitive skin — I recommend using After Bite Kids, which is a gentle, non-stinging cream that also provides instant relief for symptoms of discomfort.”

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black widow

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, this black beauty delivers a bite that is immediately painful. Try taking these steps to control bugs around your home.

You’ll have swelling and redness at the site and you may be able to see two fang marks. Within eight hours your muscles may become stiff, and you could experience nausea, dizziness, difficulty breathing, rash, itching, and even tremors and leg paralysis.

If a child has been bitten, get to the emergency room quickly as these bites can be fatal to young ones. You can wash the area with cold water and soap, and then ice for 10 minutes on, 10 minutes off until you get medical attention. Black widow spiders are just one of the most dangerous bugs you need to watch out for.

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fire ant bites on human skin

Fire Ant

They may be small, but fire ants are highly aggressive and deliver a painful bite. They’re resilient too. Not even the floodwaters of a recent tropical storm deterred them. The colony forms a loose ball and floats until it finds dry land.

Generally, fire ants are found throughout the southeastern and southwestern United States. Their nests turn up on lawns, in parks and in 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 Lamb. Remove these pests and find out how they gained entry to stop future incursions.

Treat the bites as you would chiggers: Cool shower, soap and water, and topical treatments like After Bite.

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essential oil bottle on its side with mint leaves on a light blue surface

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 stop scratching. Essentials oils like citrus, peppermint, and eucalyptus can provide soothing relief for your skin.

For additional relief, Will Cole, D.C., a functional medicine practitioner in Monroeville, Pa., has a couple of personal favorites — 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 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,” he says. Up next, these 15 pest control horror stories will will give you the creeps.

The Healthy
Originally Published on The Healthy