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What Bit Me? Guide to Identifying Bug Bites

Updated: Nov 24, 2019

In one of our recent blogs, Insects Mistaken for Bed Bugs, we talked about how difficult it is for most people to recognize various bugs. As I also said in the blog, you shouldn’t feel bad if your insect-identification skills aren’t exactly, well, top notch. After all, few of us can readily tell a Blacklegged Tick from a Brown Marmorated Stink Bug, or a Cockroach from a Giant Water Bug.

Given our collective lack of knowledge it makes sense that we also have a problem identifying bug bites. Not knowing a Hover Fly from a Paper Wasp might not be essential, but being able to identify (from the look of the mark alone) what insect attacked you can be important. Especially if you’ve been bitten by a tick or a spider.

What follows then, is a brief primer on how to identify bug bites, and what to do about them.

One caveat here: I am not a physician or an entomologist, so please don’t take what follows as medical advice. It isn’t, and it’s not meant to be. It’s just a guide. Nothing more. So, if you have been bitten or stung by a bug and you don’t know which, consult your doctor immediately. There are no prizes for taking a ‘wait-and-see’ attitude.

Flea Bites

flea bites on torso, identifying bug bites

Small, wingless, and extremely agile, fleas are parasites that depend on the blood of their host(s) for sustenance. And, like many other parasites, they will feed on you just as readily as your dog or cat ̶ or the squirrels in the attic, if they’re available. In other words, they’re ‘equal opportunity’ pests and will take their next meal wherever they find it.

Even to the untrained eye, a flea bite is rarely confused with that of a bed bug. Flea bites generally appear as small, red bumps in clusters of three or four, usually in straight lines. In some cases, the bite site might be surrounded by a red corona, or aureole. Like most parasitic bugs, fleas tend to zero in on their own favorite parts of the human body, e.g. the armpits, the groin, the waist, or the elbows and knees.

Bed Bug Bites

bed bug bites on mans back, sterifab identifying bug bites

Bed bugs can be found virtually anywhere: homes, offices, retail stores, restaurants and delis, ERs and other health care facilities, even on trains and in taxis. There's no end to the places these ‘interlopers’ can go, often brought in by the most unsuspecting of carriers ̶ us!

Some of us are lucky enough to be immune to bed bug bites; the rest of us, alas, are rarely so lucky. If you are bitten (usually at night, when you are sleeping) you will probably see a red, swollen mark with a dark spot at the center. You’ll also probably see a number of bites and they will be extremely itchy! But try not to scratch them (easier said than done, I know) since they can quickly become infected.

Mite Bites

Mites are really quite small, which not only makes it hard to detect their presence, but also makes it difficult for people who’ve been bitten to identify the source of the ‘assault.’ Fortunately, mite bites are usually harmless, although they can sometimes cause swelling and pain.

Like flea bites, mite bites are also hard to identify. However, if you develop red, rash-like marks on your skin and they quickly become inflamed, chances are you’ve been on the wrong end of a people/mite interaction. Once irritated, these bumps can become itchy and painful, eventually becoming swollen or blistered.

Scabies Bites

scabies infection on the hand, bug bites identified by sterifab

If bed bug and/or flea bites rate an eight on the Yuk Factor Scale’, then scabies definitely rates an 11. The problem is that scabies and bed bug bites look quite similar, and it’s hard for most people to differentiate between the two. Both are parasites, of course; but bed bugs feed on the surface of the human skin, whereas scabies tunnel under the skin, where they feed and lay their eggs!

What makes this even worse is that once the eggs have hatched, they tend to burrow back under the skin of the host, thus setting up the whole nasty cycle again. Scabies burrows look like grayish-white, raised lines. And if you detect them, get to your doctor right away! Apart from being utterly gross, scabies is highly contagious, so you can give it to virtually anyone with whom you come into contact.

Tick Bites

tick embedded in human skin, bug bites identified by sterifab

If you live in the suburbs or an urban area and you think you’re insulated from the predations of the many kinds of ticks there are, think again. You’re not! Not only do ticks spread a number of diseases ̶ Anaplasmosis, Babesiosis, Heartland virus, Powassan disease, Tickborne Relapsing Fever (TBRF), and Tularemia, to name but a few ̶ but they are also responsible for the spread of Lyme Disease!

“Most tick bites,’ says the Mayo Clinic, “are painless and cause only minor signs and symptoms, such as redness, swelling or a sore on the skin.” In fact, the majority of tick bites are fairly straightforward and rarely transmit diseases. But a bite may still create a red papule at the site and, in rare cases, may bring on hypersensitivity. The main problem is that there are so many different types of ticks, each with their own disease vector, but there are certain ticks whose bite produce unmistakable skin lesions. For instance, if a large rash develops at the site and it takes on a bull's-eye pattern, it may be a sign of Lyme disease. Plus, if the tick remains on the skin or the head is still embedded under the skin, best to get yourself to your doctor (or emergency care facility) as soon as you can.

Mosquito Bites

mosquito bites on the neck, sterifab identifies bug bites

These flying pests are among the most wide-spread insects on the plant and are largely harmless, for the most part. However, they can pose a threat when it comes to the transmission of certain diseases, such as Chikungunya, Dengue, Malaria, West Nile Virus and Zika Virus, to name but a few. Again, they are parasites, living off the blood of their host(s), which is how they manage to spread the viral and bacterial organism that they do.

According to our old friends at the Mayo Clinic, mosquito bite signs include: