How to Identify Insect Bites

Everything you need to know about diagnosing and treating bites and stings

The world is full of biting and stinging bugs, so how do you know which one got you? Thankfully, there are just as many ways to identify an insect bite as there are insects! In this comprehensive guide, we’ll teach you about the most common insect bites, from mosquitos to bed bugs (and even spiders, even though they’re technically an arachnid). With our reference pictures and guidance, you’ll be able to figure out what type of bug hurt you and how you can treat the bite or sting at home.

[Edit]Things You Should Know

  • The pattern of your bites can help you identify the insect—fleas bite in a cluster anywhere on your body, while chiggers attack in a line on the tight parts of your clothes.
  • Spider bites vary in severity, with widow spiders causing the most pain throughout the body and wolf spiders causing a simple but uncomfortable swelling.
  • Wasp and bee stings often look the same and have the same symptoms, but a wasp or yellow jacket won’t leave a stinger behind.
  • If you experience difficulty breathing or severe swelling after being bitten or stung, contact a doctor immediately because you could be having an allergic reaction.


[Edit]Types of Insect Bites & Stings

  1. Mosquito. A puffy, reddish bump will appear right after a mosquito bites you. The reaction can be minor or severe, depending on your tolerance to the insect’s saliva. You’ll most likely experience a small, itchy red bump, but in severe cases, you may get a large bruise, fever, and/or even hives.[1]
    Identify Insect Bites Step 1 Version 3.jpg
    • Mosquitos can spread viruses like West Nile, so prevent mosquitos from biting by wearing long sleeves and using insect repellent.
    • Mosquitos like to hang out near water in damp, moist climates.[2]
    • Check out the CDC’s ArboNET map to see if mosquitoes are spreading diseases in your area.
  2. Flea. Flea bites are small, discolored bumps that may have a discolored ring around them. The bites usually appear in a straight line or cluster, thanks to the flea’s ability to bite quickly. They generally itch and irritate the skin and most likely transfer onto you from an animal.[3]
    Identify Insect Bites Step 2 Version 3.jpg
    • Fleas tend to bite legs, feet, calves, and ankles.
    • Check your pets for fleas and notice if they’re scratching more than usual. If you suspect or see that your pet has fleas, get rid of them by giving your furry friend a bath.
    • Try placing aloe vera, honey, or oatmeal on your bites to soothe the itch naturally.
  3. Bed bug. Bed bug bites are typically around the size of an apple seed, are a brownish red color, and appear in a line. Even so, their bites can be hard to identify because they don’t typically show until 14 days after you’ve been bitten; this is why checking for signs of an infestation is so important. Pull back your sheets and covers and check for bed bug exoskeletons, live bed bugs, and a sweet, musty odor.[4]
    Identify Insect Bites Step 3 Version 3.jpg
    • Bed bugs are excellent hiders and love to hitchhike to your cozy bed from luggage, shipped furniture, or packages.
    • If you've been bitten by a bed bug and have signs of an infestation, avoid itching the bites and treat your home with an insecticide spray by calling an exterminator.
  4. Spider. Spider bites are usually harmless and cause redness, swelling, and minor pain; however, it’s very important to identify what type of spider has bitten you. Some bites can be more severe than others, depending on the type of spider.[5]
    Identify Insect Bites Step 4 Version 3.jpg
    • Recluse spider bites typically have a pale center that turns blue or purple with a red ring around it. The pain usually increases over the first 8 hours.
    • Widow spider bites have a fang puncture mark in the center of the bite and can cause pain and swelling that spread into your abdomen, back, or chest.
    • Hobo spider bites will become hard within 30 minutes of the bite and produce a pus-filled blister.[6]
    • Wolf spider bites will have 2 fang marks at the center of the bite and can become inflamed.
    • Most spiders enjoy warm, dark, and enclosed environments.
  5. Tick. Tick bites tend to be small and red but painless, so they may not be super noticeable at first, especially if you’re not actively looking. If you’ve been outside in the woods or in dense shrubbery (specifically in the spring and fall months), make sure to check your body for ticks. These little biters will latch on and can look like a fleck of dirt or a mole on your skin, so keep a keen eye!
    Identify Insect Bites Step 5 Version 3.jpg
    • Check your local tick forecast to see where and when ticks are active in your area here.[7]
    • Take precautions before you go out to avoid a tick bite. Choose an outfit with long sleeves, long pants, and long socks, and use insect repellent.
    • If you do find a tick on you, don’t panic and remove it as quickly as possible with a pair of tweezers.[8]
    • Ticks can carry Lyme disease, a dangerous chronic illness that can cause debilitating symptoms. If a rash appears in a bull’s eye pattern around the bite, contact your doctor immediately as this could be a sign of Lyme’s disease.[9]
  6. Chigger. A chigger will leave a speckled line of red, pimple-looking spots along your ankles, lower legs, knees, waist, or groin. These teeny tiny insects like to hide in your clothing after you’ve been in a heavily wooded or grassy area. If you notice a line of tiny red, itchy dots along your sock, pants, or bra line, it’s most likely a chigger bite.[10]
    Identify Insect Bites Step 6 Version 3.jpg
    • Chiggers thrive in areas with high humidity near moist soil.
    • Chigger bites usually last around 2 weeks, with the most intense itching occurring within the first 24 and 46 hours.
  7. Fire ant. You’ll feel a fire ant bite before seeing it. These fiery pests will attack if you’ve accidentally stepped on their nest and swarm up your feet and leg. The burning or stinging sensation will hit first, and then an itchy red welt or bump will form within an hour after the bite. In severe cases, you may experience swelling through an entire extremity, trouble breathing, or dizziness.[11]
    Identify Insect Bites Step 7 Version 2.jpg
    • If a fire ant bite triggers more than a small red welt, seek medical attention immediately, as this could be an allergic reaction.
    • Blisters can develop where the bites are after a few hours; a day or so later, the blisters may pop with yellow or white pus.
    • Fire ants are the most common in the southeast United States and are found in colonies or nests on the ground.
  8. Horse fly. Flies rarely bite, but it can be very painful when they do. Horse flies can leave behind a medium or large welt that’s paler in the center. These flying insects like moist environments and typically live near water.[12]
    Identify Insect Bites Step 8 Version 2.jpg
    • Use an insect repellent when you’re near marshes or moist, wet environments to keep horse flies and other insects away.
  9. Lice. These tiny pests are usually found on the neck, scalp, and behind the ears, as they like to hide in hair. Lice bites may appear as small bumps around your hairline, especially if you've been scratching your head. This, paired with a non-stop itch and teeny white eggs (known as nits) that cling to strands of hair, is a clear sign of lice.[13]
    Identify Insect Bites Step 9 Version 2.jpg
    • You may feel a soft tickling sensation on your head as the adult lice move around.
    • If you suspect you have lice, get rid of the bugs by washing your hair with a non-prescription lice-killing shampoo and wash all your clothes and bedding that may have come in contact with them.
    • Head lice are the most common amongst younger children and spread through head-to-head contact or shared infected clothing.[14]
    • An overnight coconut oil mask can be a great alternative to get rid of lice if you can’t use chemical treatments on your hair.
  10. Bee. A bee sting can cause temporary pain and discomfort or an extreme allergic reaction. When a bee stings you, you’ll first feel a sharp burning pain in the sting site. The skin will then swell to form a red welt. The swelling and pain can last a few hours or up to 10 days, depending on the severity of the reaction.[15]
    Identify Insect Bites Step 10 Version 2.jpg
    • If you experience extreme swelling and/or difficulty breathing, seek medical attention immediately, as you could have an allergic reaction.
    • Always seek help if you’ve been stung by multiple bees at once, as this could be life-threatening.
    • Bees can be found around flowered or grassy areas and building walls, and they’re typically passive unless disrupted.[16]
  11. Yellow jacket. A yellow jacket sting will appear the same as a bee sting: sharp pain and swelling into a red welt.[17] The only difference between the two is that a yellow jacket won't leave a stinger behind.
    Identify Insect Bites Step 11 Version 2.jpg
    • Yellow jackets often build their nests in tree stumps, attics, or between walls. Basically, any cavity they can squeeze into.
  12. Scorpion. A scorpion’s sting always requires medical attention, and it often leaves a red mark on your skin along with a bit of swelling. These 8-legged creatures pack a deadly punch, and one sting can cause intense pain, convulsions, muscle twitches, and respiratory depression. Symptoms usually subside after 48 hours, but they should never be left untreated.[18]
    Identify Insect Bites Step 12 Version 2.jpg
    • Scorpions typically hide during the day and come out at night; they're often under rocks and other objects on the ground.
    • They prefer dry, desert areas but can also be found in grasslands and caves.

[Edit]Diagnosing a Bite or Sting

  1. Note where you were bitten or stung. The location of your bite on your body and your environment can help you determine what type of insect bit or stung you. Were you outside in a wooded area or a warm, damp climate? Is the bite on your feet, back, arm, etc.? Knowing the answers to these questions can help you narrow down what insect bit you since many typically sting in specific areas or are only prevalent in certain environments.[19]
    Identify Insect Bites Step 13 Version 2.jpg
    • If you were outdoors near a wooded area, it might have been a mosquito, tick, or spider.
    • If you were near food or garbage, it could have been a fly, bee, or wasp.
    • If you were indoors sitting on the carpet or playing with a pet, it may be fleas.
    • If you were bitten in your bed while sleeping, it could be bed bugs.
  2. Determine the size and shape of your bite or sting. Most insect bites and stings will swell and become red and itchy. Take a closer look at the bite or sting to see how many bumps there are and how swollen they’re becoming.[20]
    Identify Insect Bites Step 14 Version 2.jpg
    • Mosquitos usually leave behind a single bite that small and red.
    • Chigger bites are a number of small, itchy mounds lined together. You’ll probably find them in areas where your clothes fit tightly to your body, such as your waistband.
    • Bed bug bites will be itchy red bumps grouped in rows of 2 or 3.
    • Bee stings cause an initial stingy sensation and form a red, swollen welt where the stinger was placed.
    • Fire ants attack the skin all over to create bright red bumps that burn.
    • Spider bites will commonly have 1 or 2 puncture marks and will be paler in the center with a red outline.
  3. Check for signs of a stinger. When a bee or wasp stings you, their stinger will most likely detach in your skin. Because of this, these stings are incredibly painful and can cause immediate swelling. They’ll leave a red welt with a small white spot in the center (where the stinger broke the skin). In some cases, a stinger can be found inside the welt, especially if you’ve been stung by a bee.
    Identify Insect Bites Step 15.jpg
    • If you find the stinger, carefully remove it with the edge of a credit card. Avoid using tweezers, which could push the stinger further into the skin.[21]
    • A honeybee dies after it stings you because it loses its stinger.[22]
    • Hornets and wasps don’t leave a stinger behind, so they can sting multiple times in a row.
  4. Look for the insect. In many cases, you’ll be able to spot the little bugger who bit or stung you, especially if you feel the bite right away. Take a picture of the insect or bring it to your doctor if you’re concerned about potential reactions or diseases.
    Identify Insect Bites Step 16.jpg
    • This is especially important if you’ve been bit by a tick, as they can carry Lyme disease. Place the live tick in a resealable plastic back, a lidded container, or rubbing alcohol to show your doctor.[23]
    • Avoid catching a bee, hornet, or other stinging insect when it’s alive, as this could lead you to be stung again.

[Edit]Treating a Bite or Sting

  1. Clean the bite with soap and water. This helps prevent additional infection and can help you see the bite or sting more clearly. Just make sure the water is cool to the touch, as this will help combat swelling and keep the bite from releasing any more itchy histamines.[24]
    Identify Insect Bites Step 17.jpg
    • Never put any medications or creams on the affected area until it’s clean.
  2. Elevate and ice a swollen bite or sting. Help reduce blood flow to the bite by keeping the bitten part of your body up.[25] Make a cool compress by dampening a cloth with cold water or put an ice pack on the affected area. Both of these things will help calm your body’s reaction and lessen the swelling.[26]
    Identify Insect Bites Step 18.jpg
  3. Use an anti-itch cream if the bite itches. Some insect bites or stings can be super itchy. Do your best to avoid itching and scratching, as this could worsen the bite(s) or even cause scarring. Apply a generous amount of an antihistamine or corticosteroid cream like Benadryl or Cortizone 10 to the bite to calm the itch.[27]
    Identify Insect Bites Step 19.jpg
    • Look for creams, gels, and lotions with pramoxine as an ingredient, as these can help control itching.
    • Try making an anti-itch essential oil by mixing 5 drops of lavender, 3 drops of frankincense, and 2 drops of peppermint oil with almond or coconut oil.[28]
  4. Treat for shock if you have an allergic reaction. Some insect bites can cause anaphylaxis, an extremely dangerous and life-threatening allergic reaction. If this happens to you or someone near you, act immediately by calling 911 and using an EpiPen.[29]
    Identify Insect Bites Step 20.jpg
    • The first signs of a serious reaction are often hives, rash, a swollen throat and/or tongue, and trouble breathing.
  5. Seek medical attention if you’re concerned about your insect bite. In most cases, insect bites or stings are nothing to worry about. The itching and swelling will most likely go away with time, especially with the help of an anti-itch cream and cold compress. However, if your symptoms don’t lessen or become progressively worse, contact your doctor.[30]
    Identify Insect Bites Step 21.jpg
    • Notice if you experience new symptoms unrelated to the insect bite, like fever, body aches, or nausea. This could be a sign that an illness has been passed to you by the insect.[31]
    • Always seek medical attention immediately if you’ve been stung by a scorpion or deadly spider.


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[Edit]Quick Summary

  26. [v161407_b01]. 13 April 2020.
  28. [v161407_b01]. 13 April 2020.