Updated: Oct 31, 2019
Bee stings are unpleasant, especially for the bee, which dies shortly after it stings you. Wasp stings are much worse, and the wasp goes on to sting another day! Getting bitten by red ants ̶ especially if they’re running over your bare toes ̶ is probably the worst feeling in the world. Except for having to sit through reruns of Leave it to Beaver or The Gong Show!
None of the foregoing bug bites represent any real health threat. However, that is not true of some other kinds of insect bites, in particular those administered by fleas, ticks and mites.
So, let’s take a look at these particular bugs and why you should be concerned if any one them bites you.
What they look like
So, can you see a flea bite? Actually, it’s often difficult to tell one bug bite from another, especially if you’re not an expert or a doctor. Case in point: Flea bites. They look very similar to mosquito bites, so you have to be careful how you treat them. That’s not to say that mosquito bites can’t be dangerous. They can, but the telltale sign is the way a flea bite looks. It usually displays as a red bump, with a kind of red corona, or halo, around it. And, they usually appear in clusters of three or four, sometimes in a line.
The most common reaction to a flea bite is, predictably, intense itchiness ̶ and, in all likelihood, a flea bite rash. Of course, your reaction will depend to a great extent upon which species of flea bites you; different people react to flea bites in different ways, depending on their sensitivity and whether or not they’re prone to allergic reactions. The problem here is that, unless you’re an expert, it’s extremely hard to tell the bite of one flea species from another ̶ the one exception being the chigoe flea.
Why they’re a problem
Like many parasites, fleas transmit diseases when they draw blood from their host animal, or animals. And they’re not particular about their food sources. Dogs, cats, small mammals, and us, are all fair game. But here’s is why you should be wary of flea bites: Depending on the species of flea, they can carry protozoan ̶ i.e. a single-celled organism, from the phyla group ̶ parasites, viruses, or bacteria that
can result in serious illnesses.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) there a number of diseases that can be transmitted by flea bite, among them:
How to treat them
First of all, wash the bite areas with soap, and, if you can, swab it with denatured alcohol. This should lessen the possibility of infection. At this point an icepack may help to reduce the swelling, but you should quickly apply calamine lotion or a reliable anesthetic cream to reduce the itching. (N.B. Talk to your pharmacist about which OTC products ̶ probably antihistamines ̶ can lessen the annoying symptoms).
Second, and this is important, if you have any doubts about how you’re feeling, or if your symptoms worsen, consult your physician immediately.
What they look like
Actually, the question “What do mites look like?” is a bit of a strange questions. Not because mites are so ugly that they cannot be adequately described, but because they are so darn small. That doesn’t mean they aren’t ugly; they are. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right?
We’ve already covered mites in these blogs ̶ for instance, Meet the Mite Family: Types of Mites, Their Habitat & Species and Mites, Mites and More Mites ̶ but we still need to revisit the ‘Mite Problem’.
Actually, there’s another problem when it comes to identifying mites: There are so many different types ̶ Clover mites, Dust mites, Itch mites, Rodent and Bird mites, Scabies mites, and Chiggers. They are all parasites, but some prefer to parasitize animals, while others hone in on humans. Still others exist as scavengers, and some prey on other insects.
With the exception of Scabies bites (more about those later) mite bites are frequently difficult to identify. In fact, there’s a good chance that you might not even know that you’ve been bitten ̶ until the symptoms and signs appear. However, there are some common signs of a mite bite, such as:
Reddish marks that look like a rash
Small bumps (that become hard or inflamed)
Itching, irritation and pain at the bite site
Puffy or suppurated skin around the bite
Unlike other mites, which feed on blood from outside the host, scabies literally gets under your skin ̶ and that’s a problem! Scabies tunnel under the skin to feed and lay eggs. Plus, they’re microscopic, so you just can’t see them. But you can spot the tell-tale signs of their presence, which include:
Rash-like abrasions that look like grayish-white, raised lines
Reddened, swollen contusions ̶ or papules ̶ which can fester if the original bite goes untreated.
Why mite bites are a problem, and how to treat them
While mites are generally not considered a major health threat, their bites can lead to various unpleasant skin infections if not treated immediately. Bite victims should consult a physician as soon as possible after being bitten. The doctor will probably prescribe some sort of topical agent, or, if the bite is already infected, one of many antibiotics.
Likewise, scabies bites will probably require some sort of scabicide lotion or cream, which, incidentally, can only be obtained only with a doctor’s prescription. Currently there are no OTC (over-the-counter or non-prescription) products that have been approved by the FDA for treating scabies.
What tick bites look like
Like mites, ticks come in a variety of shapes and sizes: Blacklegged ticks or Deer ticks, American Dog ticks, Lone Star ticks, Brown Dog ticks, Rocky Mountain Wood ticks, Gulf Coast ticks, Pacific Coast ticks, Western-Blacklegged ticks, and Cayenne ticks, among others. However, unlike their miniscule relatives they’re fairly easy to spot ̶ especially when they’ve embedded themselves in your skin!
In general, you probably won’t feel anything because a tick bite doesn’t hurt, and it’s only when the tick swells up (with your blood) that you’re likely to spot it. At this point, after you’ve removed the tick or it’s just fallen off, you might get a small red bump where the tick bit you.
But that’s when the real problem starts. Identifying ticks is fairly easy (see our blog What Makes a Tick Tick?), but knowing what to look for if you’ve been infected is a little harder. So, here’s a quick guide to how the more common tick-borne diseases manifest themselves:
Lyme disease Not all Lyme disease victims get a rash, but most do. It can take anywhere from three to thirty days to show up, but just over a week is more typical. Look for a round or oval area of redness around the bite. The size of this bulls-eye pattern can vary greatly, but it’s usually six 6 inches wide.
STARI The rash from this affliction is, according to the CDC, “nearly identical to that of Lyme disease, with a red, expanding “bulls eye” lesion that develops around the site of a Lone Star tick bite.”
Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever RMSF will sometimes not even cause a rash. But, when it does, it usually sets in two-to-five days after the fever begins and displays as “small, flat, pink, non-itchy spots (macules) on the wrists, forearms, and ankles and spreads to the trunk2.”
Tularemia An ulcer will develop at the bite site, and may well be paired with a swelling of the lymph glands (usually in the armpit or groin).
Why ticks are a problem
As you can see from the foregoing list, ticks can transmit a variety of diseases: Anaplasmosis, Babesiosis, Heartland virus, Powassan disease, Tickborne Relapsing Fever (TBRF), and 364D rickettsiosis. Most of them are obviously unpleasant but, in the case of RMSF, quite possibly fatal ̶ particularly in the case of children ̶ if it’s not treated immediately.
How to treat them
More important, as far as I’m concerned, is recognizing the symptoms that can result from the bite of an infected tick. Unless you kept the offending tick and had it identified by a reliable lab (or professional), chances are you won’t be able to match whatever symptoms you experience with a particular disease. That your doctor can do.
Those symptoms might include:
Headaches, sometimes accompanied by nausea
Stiffness of the neck
General weakness and muscle aches
Chills and fever
Enlarged lymph nodes
If you happen to suffer from any of these indicators, you should either consult your physician or visit the nearest emergency care center as soon as you can.
I am not a doctor, so I cannot give you medical advice, but I can say that in the presence of such symptoms you should not resort to OTC products or home remedies. If you do, you are putting yourself in harm’s way when you don’t have to. Always, always seek the help of medical professionals.