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, including:
- bites from a poisonous insect
- bites that cause a serious condition like Lyme disease
- bites or stings 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.
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 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.
Cellulitis is a bacterial infection of your skin and the surrounding tissue. It’s not contagious.
Symptoms of cellulitis include:
- redness that spreads from the bite
- swollen lymph nodes
- pus coming from the bite
Cellulitis can usually be treated with antibiotics. Untreated or severe cellulitis can cause sepsis, a life threatening complication of infection.
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
Lymphangitis can be treated with antibiotics. If it’s not treated, it can lead to other infections, such as:
- skin abscesses
- blood infection
- sepsis, which is a life threatening systemic infection
Lyme disease is an illness caused by a bacteria transmitted through tick bites. In the United States, Lyme disease is most common in the northeast, mid-Atlantic, and north-central states.
Symptoms of Lyme disease include:
- bull‘s-eye-shaped rash (not everyone who has Lyme disease gets this rash, but it’s characteristic of Lyme disease)
- joint pain
- muscle pain
Lyme disease is treated with antibiotics. It’s important to diagnose and treat Lyme disease early, so always check for ticks after being outdoors in areas where Lyme disease is common. Untreated illness can cause issues with your joints, heart, and nervous system.
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°F (37.7°C)
- 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 the bite gets worse over a few days after you’ve been 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.
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.
In many cases, an infected bug bite will need an antibiotic. You may be able to try OTC antibiotic ointments for minor bug bites without symptoms of severe infection, such as
- rapid worsening redness
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 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:
- severe pain
- an ulcer at the site of the bite
Additionally, get emergency medical treatment if you have symptoms of anaphylaxis, an emergency condition caused by a severe allergic reaction.
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:
It can be hard to prevent bug bites if you spend time outside. But there are some steps you can take to make it less likely that you get bitten:
- Use insect repellent when you’re outside, especially repellents that contain DEET. Be sure to test them on a small patch of skin first to make sure they don’t irritate you.
- Avoid heavily scented perfume, cologne, soap, or shampoo.
- Wear long sleeves and pants whenever possible.
- Avoid going outside from dusk through dawn, which is when mosquitoes are most active.
- Stay away from standing water and humid but shady areas. These types of places attract mosquitoes.
- If insects come near you, stay calm and back away slowly. Don’t swat at them.
- Check your body for ticks after returning from tick-infested areas. Immediately remove any ticks that are found.
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 with a doctor about whether you need oral antibiotics or if OTC antibiotic ointment will help.