You try your best to prevent them, but bug bites happen. Between the stings, swelling and itching, it can be hard to know which type of bug is to blame and how to treat symptoms. Thomas Serbousek, MD, UnityPoint Health, helps identify common bug bites and offers advice on how to prevent them.
Recognizing Insect Bites and Their Symptoms
Identifying bug bites isn’t always easy, and depending on the type of bite, symptoms can vary. As a whole, Dr. Serbousek says, regardless of what bug bit you, the bites typically have the same characteristics, including pain, itching, swelling and redness. Rarely, bee stings can cause an allergic reaction in people, which can lead to a condition called anaphylactic shock.
“Symptoms of anaphylactic shock include hives, wheezing, shortness of breath and abdominal pain,” Dr. Serbousek says. “Without appropriate care, death could result. Individuals who are allergic to bee stings should always carry an Epi-Pen with them.”
How to Prevent Bug Bites
“As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. While some bug bites can’t really be prevented, there are proven ways to guard off others,” Dr. Serbousek says.
Using insect repellent can be an effective prevention method, but only for certain types of bugs.
- Non-preventable. Unfortunately, repellents aren’t effective against stinging insects, such as bees, wasps, hornets or spiders. One really can’t prevent these, other than staying away from areas of known infestation.
- Preventable. Repellents are extremely useful in keeping mosquitoes, biting flies, gnats, fleas, chiggers and ticks away.
DEET-based repellents provide the best protection for bug bites that can be prevented. Wristbands containing repellent are not effective, regardless of the repellent type used. For some bugs, like ticks and gnats, Dr. Serbousek says other types of protection and/or repellents are necessary.
“The best protection from ticks consists of permethrin-treated clothing and gear, plus the application of a DEET repellent to exposed skin. With gnats, repellent with DEET is not effective. Instead, PMD (p-methane-3,8 diol) products repel gnats well. PMD is the active ingredient in oil of lemon eucalyptus, but you shouldn’t use PMD products on children under the age of 3.”
Dr. Serbousek offers these tips though when using bug spray:
- Lightly cover skin. When using DEET-based repellents, use just enough to lightly cover, but not saturate, your skin. If you’re using with sunscreen, apply the sunscreen before the bug spray. Frequent reapplication of repellent isn’t necessary.
- Don’t apply under clothing. Apply insect repellent to exposed skin, clothing or both, but not under clothing.
- Wash your hands. Clean your hands after applying repellent, and don’t apply it to the hands of small children, as they will end up rubbing their eyes.
- Not for everyone. Children younger than 2 months of age should not use repellents with DEET. But, repellents with 10-30 percent of DEET appear to be safe for children over the age of 2 months, pregnant women and lactating mothers.
How to Treat Bug Bites
While many home remedies for bug bites exist, Dr. Serbousek recommends two types of at-home symptom relief.
“To relieve symptoms for stings and bites, use cold compresses and/or over-the-counter cortisone cream. If this doesn’t provide enough relief, visit your primary care provider, who could possibly prescribe a prescription cream or ointment. If you believe your bug bite is infected, you should also seek care,” Dr. Serbousek says.
Did you know you can receive bug bite treatment from the comfort of your home? UnityPoint Health Virtual Care offers patients a convenient alternative for care when they can’t get to their doctor or an urgent care clinic. Registration is easy and only takes a few minutes. Or, download the UnityPoint Health Virtual Care app in the App Store or Google Play.
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