Bug bites can be annoying, but most are harmless and you’ll just have a few days of itching. But some bug bites do need treatment:

  • bite from a poisonous insect
  • bite that causes a serious condition like Lyme disease
  • bite or sting from an insect to which you’re allergic

Some bug bites can also become infected. If your bite does become infected, you’ll usually need to see a doctor for treatment. However, most infected bug bites can be treated with a course of antibiotics.

Most insect bites will be itchy and red for a few days. But if one gets infected, you might also have:

Bug bites can often cause a lot of itching. Scratching may make you feel better, but if you break the skin, you can transfer bacteria from your hand into the bite. This can lead to an infection.

The most common infections of bug bites include:

Impetigo

Impetigo is a skin infection. It’s most common in infants and children, but adults can get it too. Impetigo is very contagious.

It causes red sores around the bite. Eventually, the sores rupture, ooze for a few days, and then form a yellowish crust. The sores may be mildly itchy and sore.

The sores may be mild and contained to one area or more widespread. More severe impetigo may cause scarring. No matter the severity, impetigo is usually not dangerous and can be treated with antibiotics. However, untreated impetigo can cause cellulitis and kidney issues.

Cellulitis

Cellulitis is a bacterial infection of your skin and surrounding tissue. It’s not contagious.

Symptoms of cellulitis include:

  • redness that spreads from the bite
  • fever
  • swollen lymph nodes
  • chills
  • pus coming from the bite

Cellulitis can usually be treated with antibiotics. Untreated or severe cellulitis can cause blood poisoning.

Lymphangitis

Lymphangitis is an inflammation of the lymphatic vessels, which connect lymph nodes and move lymph throughout your body. These vessels are part of your immune system.

Symptoms of lymphangitis include:

  • red, irregular tender streaks that extend out from the bite, which may be warm to the touch
  • enlarged lymph nodes
  • fever
  • headache
  • chills

Lymphangitis can be treated with antibiotics. If it’s not treated, it can lead to other infections, such as:

  • skin abscesses
  • cellulitis
  • blood infection
  • sepsis, which is a life-threatening systemic infection

You may be able to treat minor infections at home with over-the-counter (OTC) antibiotic ointments. But in many cases, you’ll need to go to the doctor for an infected bug bite or sting. You should see a doctor if:

  • you have signs of a systemic infection, such as chills or a fever, especially if the fever is above 100 degrees
  • your child has any signs of an infected bug bite
  • you have signs of lymphangitis, such as red streaks extending from the bite
  • you develop sores or abscesses on or around the bite
  • the pain on or around bite gets worse over a few days after you get bitten
  • the infection doesn’t get better after using an antibiotic ointment for 48 hours
  • redness spreads from the bite and gets bigger after 48 hours

In the beginning of an infection, you may be able to treat it at home. But if the infection gets worse, you may need medical treatment. Call a doctor if you’re not sure.

Home remedies

Most home remedies focus on treating the symptoms of an infection while you’re taking antibiotics. Try the following for relief:

  • Clean the bite with soap and water.
  • Keep the bite and any other infected areas covered.
  • Use ice packs to reduce swelling.
  • Use topical hydrocortisone ointment or cream to reduce itching and swelling.
  • Use calamine lotion to relieve itching.
  • Take an antihistamine like Benadryl to reduce itching and swelling.

Medical treatments

In many cases, an infected bug bite will need an antibiotic. You may be able to try over-the-counter antibiotic ointment first if your symptoms are not severe or systemic (such as a fever).

If those don’t work, or your infection is severe, a doctor can prescribe a stronger topical antibiotic or oral antibiotics.

If abscesses develop because of the infection, you may need minor surgery to drain them. This is usually an outpatient procedure.

An infection is just one reason to see a doctor after an insect bite or sting. You should also see a doctor if after a bite or sting if you:

  • are stung or bitten in the mouth, nose, or throat
  • have flu-like symptoms a few days after a tick or mosquito bite
  • have a rash after a tick bite
  • are bitten by a spider and have any of the following symptoms within 30 minutes to 8 hours: cramping, fever, nausea, severe pain, or an ulcer at the site of the bite

Additionally, get emergency medical treatment if you have symptoms of anaphylaxis, an emergency condition.

Medical emergency

Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency. Call 911 or local emergency services and go to the nearest emergency room if you’ve been bitten by an insect and you have:

Scratching a bug bite may make you feel better, but it can also cause an infection if bacteria from your hand gets into the bite.

If you do get an infection, talk to a doctor about whether you need oral antibiotics or if OTC antibiotic ointment will help.