Insect bites are perhaps the most annoying and disruptive aspect of a hike, a walk through the woods, a campfire or a barbecue. Common insects that bite include fleas, mosquitoes, flies, lice, wasps, bees, beetles, moths, and butterflies. Fortunately, the bites of less than one percent of the estimated one million species of insects are harmful to humans.
Dermatologists are able to treat bugbites and their complications even when they aren’t always able to distinguish clearly between all of the types of bites.
What makes those red, sometimes scaly, dome-shaped and itchy bumps form? When an insect takes its first “bite” of your skin, it injects saliva or venom. Your body’s immune system notices the bite venom and can become sensitized over one or more weeks. The next time you experience an insect bite, you may get a weal/hive-like response within a few minutes. This is followed by the typical insect bite/bump, which usually has a puncture mark in the center. Other skin effects include blisters that may bleed, nodules, and skin ulcers.
Occasionally, insect bites can also have systemic effects or cause generalized diseases or even death. In fact, insects are responsible for twice as many deaths as snakebites. Other symptoms that can be caused by bites include pain in the joints, fever, headache, and fatigue. Blood tests can show whether a system-wide response has occurred to the insect’s venom.
Many non-insects like ticks, for example, can transmit serious illnesses like Lyme Disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Long Island, much of New England, Wisconsin, and several other states are known to have more herds of deer and the ticks that they carry. The bites of some ticks, mites, and spiders may resemble insect bites. Tiny red “bugbites” frequently found on children are often caused by one of fifty species of nonpoisonous spiders rather than from an insect.
Some of the symptoms and complications of insect bites include impetigo (a bacterial infection) with honey-colored, crusty patches that show up after people start scratching. Ulcers, scars, changes in skin color, swelling, allergic reactions, and thickened skin can also result from severe itching of insect bites.
How do you know what bit you? Although it may be difficult to determine the culprit, there are many clues. Lice frequently cause small “blood blisters,” bruises, or an immediate reddish tinge in the skin. Bedbug bites are usually noticed first thing in the morning and are often arranged in a line, or groups of three that show where the insect had breakfast, lunch, and dinner during the night. Mosquitoes and most other flying insects will only bite exposed skin. Spiders usually bite only once.
Scientists think that insects may be attracted by body odor or perhaps by pheromones-the natural odors that attract people to one another. Insects do possess the senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. People with allergies or eczema/atopic dermatitis appear to be more prone to bites as well as to complications like bacterial infections from scratching.
Prevention can really help those who are sensitive or allergic to insect bites. Wear protective clothing with long sleeves, etc. when outdoors, or screen picnic areas where food attracts bugs. Special anti-insect torches are available, as are insect “zappers” that work without harmful chemicals. If a family member has a history of bad reactions to bee or wasp bites, keep an emergency kit available with items recommended by your doctor. Severe reactions can be fatal.
Insect repellents are safest if rubbed or sprayed on clothing. However, if a person is highly sensitive to bites, the repellent may need to be applied directly to non-irritated skin in a thin film. DEET (diethytoluamide) seems to be the most effect insect repellent. Permethrin aerosol, sprayed onto clothes, seems to add more protection against mosquitoes, but shouldn’t be used on children under age 2. With other young children, try to use less than 10 percent DEET. A professional exterminator can be helpful in eliminating a hidden nest of insects and will also know in which season and which environment a particular insect is likely to attack. Dogs, cats, and carpeting may require treatment to get rid of an infestation. Unfortunately, shots to desensitize people to insect bites haven’t been very successful or practical.
A worrisome or unusual insect bite should be reported to your doctor, who may prescribe special creams to lessen the itch. Some of these are calamine lotion, oatmeal, camphor and phenol, and topical cortisone products. Oral antihistamines can also help. If scratching a bite has resulted in an infection, both oral and topical medications may be prescribed. Here’s a few handy tips to remember to prevent insect bites:
* Screen in picnic areas where possible
* Use insect-repellent torches or “zappers”
* Wear a hat outdoors to cover your hair
* Wear light-colored clothing that’s snug at the wrist and ankles
* Keep garbage cans closed and clean
* Wipe off perspiration as soon as possible (it attracts insects)
* After swimming, shake towels and clothing off before using
* Keep an emergency, poison control center phone number handy (and a kit if any family member is seriously allergic to stings)
* Wearing perfumes, perfumed sun lotions, hair sprays or tonic outdoors
* Scented soaps, creams, or cosmetics
* Dark colored clothing
* Decaying fruit in picnic areas
* Kicking or moving logs
* Jewelry or shiny buckles outdoors