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Common Insect Bites & Stings in Central Pennsylvania

Summer is upon us, and that usually means more time spent outdoors. With the warmer weather and longer days come picnics, sports activities and, unfortunately, bugs. While dealing with insect stings and bites is sometimes an inevitable part of spending time outdoors, knowing how to prevent and treat bug bites and stings can keep you from having a miserable warm-weather season.

If you live in Central Pennsylvania, it may seem as if almost every insect possesses some annoying or painful bite or sting. These pesky critters seem to take advantage of the fact that humans are in their domain. There are several Central PA bugs to watch out for, such as bees, wasps and flies. Equally dangerous are arachnids such as spiders and ticks, which aren’t technically classified as insects. Knowing the habitats and behaviors of some of the most common insects you may encounter can help you steer clear of them, thus lessening the chance of receiving a bite or sting.

How to Treat a Bug Bite

Treatment of bites and stings depends upon the type of insect involved. Insect bites and stings require quick treatment to ease discomfort and prevent further symptoms. Thankfully, basic first-aid treatments and home or over-the-counter remedies for a bug bite or insect sting are often effective. Occasionally, medical care is necessary for bites and stings that become infected or produce an allergic or toxic reaction.

Insect bites and stings result in thousands of emergency-room visits each year. Since insects can carry diseases and people can be severely allergic without even knowing it, it's important to be aware of some of the most common allergic and toxic reactions. Reactions vary from person to person and depend on the type of insect involved. Allergic reactions can range from basic hives or rash to shortness of breath and even death in extreme circumstances. Allergic reactions require medical attention, with the most severe requiring an immediate visit to the emergency room.

Insect Bites vs. Insect Stings

When you receive a bite or sting, the result is usually a painful, swollen and itchy wound. Insects and arachnids bite and sting either as a defense mechanism or to feed on blood to get nutrients. Sometimes it may be difficult to determine if you’ve been bitten or stung, especially if you didn’t see the insect or were bitten while sleeping.

Symptoms of insect stings and bites include:

Redness

Swelling

Pain

Itching

Insect bites are a result of an insect or arachnid using their mouthparts to penetrate the skin. The reaction occurs as a result of the insect leaving behind their saliva in your bloodstream. Critters that bite include spiders, mosquitoes, flies and ticks. Many insects, especially females, require blood to get nutrients like protein and iron, which are essential for the production of viable eggs. Insect bites are usually red, swollen and often itchy around the site.

Insect stings are an insect’s defense mechanism and occur when the insect has used its stinger to penetrate your skin and inject its toxin. When insects sting, it releases a small amount of toxin or venom into your body, which causes your body to initiate an immune reaction. A sting will usually be red and swollen around the injection site, but will usually stay localized to that area. Bees and wasps are stinging insects. Some bees will die immediately after stinging, while others can sting repeatedly.

While insect bites and stings are annoying and uncomfortable, they are usually harmless. However, insect bites can sometimes spread dangerous diseases such as Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever in ticks, and the West Nile and Zika viruses in mosquitoes. You can also be allergic to an insect's sting or bite and not even realize it. The result can be a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction that requires immediate medical attention.

While getting stung or bitten by spiders, ticks and insects is sometimes inevitable, there are certain things you can do to try to prevent bites and stings.

Wear protective clothing. When entering wooded areas or areas with standing water, wear clothing that covers as much of your body as possible. Tuck pants into socks to reduce the chance of ticks attaching to and biting you.

Wear insect repellent. Insect repellent is often very effective against ticks, mosquitoes and biting flies. Repellents containing DEET and picaridin are two of the most commonly used today.

Avoid areas where insects live. Stay away from nests and hives if possible, and try to stay indoors during the hours when they are most active. If you see an active hive or nest, it's best to consult a professional pest control company rather than trying to remove it yourself.

Avoid wearing perfumes, hair products and lotions which may attract insects. Insects such as mosquitoes and gnats are attracted to these fragrant substances and will seek out individuals wearing them.

Don’t swat at flying insects. Bees and wasps are more likely to sting you when they feel threatened. Some insects are attracted to movement and, after stinging, will leave behind a substance that summons other members of the colony.

Keep food and garbage covered. Bees and flies are attracted to foods, sugary drinks and garbage. Keeping your food and garbage covered will lessen the chance of attracting insects in the first place.

Make sure there is no standing water nearby. Since mosquitoes lay their eggs in and around standing water, there may be numerous places in your yard that can provide a breeding ground for them. Empty standing water from birdbaths, wading pools and old tires.

Repair holes. Be sure screens don’t have holes and that windows and doors have screening no larger than 18” x 18”. Fill or repair holes in siding, eaves and shutters to prevent insects from making nests.

Be aware. Many humans get bitten or stung by insects by accidentally coming into contact with them. Always look before putting your hand into boxes in the closet, reaching under woodpiles or opening an unused grill cover or light fixture. Spiders will bite if trapped between clothing or bedding.

Common Insects That Bite and Sting in Central PA

There are many bugs in central PA that bite and sting. The most common bugs that bite in PA include mosquitoes, spiders, ticks and flies, while the most common insects that sting in PA include bees and wasps.

Mosquitoes — Pennsylvania is home to about 60 species of mosquitoes. The northern house mosquito is the most common in PA, and is responsible for most of the cases of West Nile in the state. Mosquitoes lay their eggs in areas with water. The females are the only ones who bite, as they need blood to produce their eggs. They spread disease by feeding on various hosts in a short time. Mosquitoes are most active from the hours of dusk to dawn. Their bite usually results in a raised, itchy bump.

Spiders — While many species of spiders call PA their home, most of them are not a threat to humans. Though these spiders rarely bite, even if they do, they aren’t usually dangerous to humans. People with a compromised immune system or other medical condition are most at risk. Some people may be allergic to the spider’s venom. 

The most common biting spiders in PA include:

Sac spiders — These spiders can be found outdoors under leaves and stones and indoors on walls and ceilings. They hunt for food at night and can bite without provocation. Their painful bite usually results in burning, swelling and itching.

Wolf spiders — These large, hairy brown spiders are frequently found under woodpiles, boards and stones. They can also be found in houses, sheds and other human dwellings in cooler weather. They will bite if trapped or handled, but the bite rarely causes any symptoms other than pain and redness.

Brown recluse spiders — While they are not usually seen in PA, brown recluse spiders can be transported from boxes and other items that have been brought into the area. These small, brown spiders can be found in warm, dry areas of homes, such as closets. They have violin-shaped markings on top of their bodies. While the bite of a brown recluse is not initially painful, immediate medical attention is necessary due to the toxic effects of its venom. Possible symptoms of a brown recluse bite include a painful sore, chills, fever, nausea and rash.

Ticks — Ticks are parasites that attach to and feed off the blood of their victims. While there are more than 25 different species of ticks found in the state of Pennsylvania, three of the most prevalent are:

Dog tick — These ticks get their name from the fact that they are often found on dogs, although they can be found on almost all other warm-blooded animals, including humans, squirrels and horses. They can grow to the size of a grape when engorged. The dog tick is the most commonly found tick in Pennsylvania, and the primary carrier of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.

Blacklegged tick — This tick was formerly known as the "deer tick" because they prefer deer. The blacklegged tick is extremely prevalent in Pennsylvania and is the primary carrier of Lyme disease. The blacklegged tick lives in wooded, brushy areas.

Lone star tick — This tick is found mostly in the southern counties of Pennsylvania in developed areas. It prefers to feed on large animals such as deer, but is also found on humans. This tick also transmits Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. The lone star tick gets its name from the single star-shaped white spot located on the backs of the females.

Flies — Biting flies can be a painful nuisance during the warmer months. Some of the most common biting flies in this area include:

Horseflies — These black flies are usually around one inch long, and the females inflict a painful bite from their scissor-like mouthparts. They bite animals and humans for blood. A horsefly bite will usually become red, swollen and itchy. Although they rarely result in an allergic reaction, horsefly bites can become infected and require medical attention.

Black flies/gnats — Commonly known as gnats, these tiny annoying pests can inflict a painful, itchy and swollen bite that can last for several days. While most species of black fly in PA don’t transmit disease, they can cause allergic reactions in sensitive individuals. Gnats usually bite during the daylight hours in shady areas. They are attracted to sweat, perfumes and moisture and CO2 in human breath.

Bees — Bees can inflict a painful sting when they feel threatened. Some species of bees can sting multiple times, while others die soon after losing their stinger. Most bees are gentle and will only stung if swatted, stepped on or defending a nest. Many species of bees inhabit this area, including:

Eastern honeybee — The Eastern honeybee nests in cavities and is usually a peaceful insect. It will defend its nest if necessary, but won’t pursue a chase. Once they sting, honeybees lose their stinger and die soon after.

Africanized honeybee — Also known as “killer bees,” Africanized honeybees are a more aggressive and dangerous type of honeybee that has recently been introduced into the United States.

Bumblebee — Bumblebees nest in small colonies underground. They will defend their nest and chase predators longer and further than honeybees, but won’t summon thousands of members of their colony like wasps do. Bumblebees can sting multiple times without dying.

Wasps — Like bees, these aggressive fliers will sting if disturbed or threatened. They will forcefully protect their nests and will chase humans for hundreds of yards. Yellowjackets and hornets are part of the same family. However, they have slight differences. 

Common wasps found in PA include:

Eastern Yellowjacket — These black-and-yellow wasps nest in the ground and can be found in lawns, parks and woodlands. They will inflict a painful sting that can be very dangerous to those who are allergic. Yellowjackets can repeatedly sting, which causes more toxin to build up. Seek medical attention if you're stung near your face or mouth, or if you've been stung more than 10 times.

Baldfaced or European Hornets — Hornets also live in colonies. However, they make their nests in hollow cavities or shrubs. While they may not be as aggressive as Eastern yellowjackets, they will sting if threatened, and can also sting repeatedly. European hornets are usually yellow and brown in color, while baldfaced hornets are black with white faces. Their sting is also quick and painful.

European Paper Wasp — These wasps are also yellow and black, with thin waists, and are the most frequently found wasps in PA. They are very common in urban settings, and while they will only sting a human if they are very close, the fact that they make their nests around human items such as grills, outdoor light fixtures and behind shutters makes a wasp sting more likely.

Treating Bites and Stings

The proper treatment for insect bites and stings depends on the type of insect involved. Apply basic first-aid methods as soon as possible help to help ease the symptoms. Remedies for bug bites and insect stings can be found at home, or may require a quick trip to the drugstore. While many of the treatment methods for insect bites and stings are similar, some, such as bee and wasp stings, or tick or venomous spider bites, require different steps.

Treatment of common bug bites and stings in PA includes:

Washing the area with soap and water. This keeps the wound site clean and removes any venom that may be left on the skin. It also prevents dirt from getting into the open wound and causing infection.

Applying a cold compress or ice pack. This should be done for 10 minutes at a time, to reduce pain and swelling. Ice packs must be wrapped in a clean cloth to prevent damage to the skin. Elevate the area if possible, and remove any jewelry or tight-fitting clothing that can become tighter due to swelling.

Apply an antihistamine lotion or paste of baking soda and water to relieve discomfort, pain and itching. Calamine lotion is a common remedy and is easily found in most drug and grocery stores. Treatments should be applied a few times a day. Antihistamine medications may also be taken on the advice of a medical professional.

How to treat a bee sting — Before applying basic first-aid methods, check to see if the stinger is still in your skin. If so, remove it by scraping your skin with a credit card or similar object. Never use tweezers, as they can squeeze the stinger and inject more venom into your body.

How to treat a tick bite — Tick bites can be treated with basic first-aid methods after the tick has been carefully removed. To remove a tick, use tweezers to remove the entire tick as close to the skin as possible. Save the tick for identification purposes. Carefully monitor the bite site to check for a target-shaped rash that could signal Lyme disease, which requires antibiotics.

How to treat a brown recluse bite — Bites from brown recluse spiders require immediate medical attention. It’s imperative that you don’t apply a tourniquet to the area, as it can push the venom faster through the body. Use first-aid methods and keep the victim calm to prevent the venom from spreading. If possible, save the spider for identification purposes.

Symptoms of insect bites can last from a few hours to several days, and even up to a week. It’s important to seek medical attention if your symptoms don’t subside after a few days, you develop an infection at the wound site or you develop symptoms of an insect-borne sickness or allergic reaction.

Recognizing Allergic Reactions to Bites and Stings

An allergen is a foreign substance that causes an immune reaction in your body. While most insect and spider bites are not serious, they can become life-threatening if you’re allergic. While only a small percentage of the U.S. population suffers from insect sting allergies, anaphylactic reactions still cause up to 100 deaths per year. Several types of allergic reactions may occur from different insect bites. Seek immediate medical attention if you suspect any allergic or toxic reaction.

Severe allergic reactions, also called anaphylaxis, are life-threatening and require immediate medical attention. Call 911 immediately if you suspect that you or someone nearby is having an anaphylactic or toxic reaction. Death can occur if immediate medical care is not received.

Symptoms of anaphylaxis include:

Itchy rash or hives

Nausea, diarrhea or stomach cramps

Chest tightening and shortness of breath

Dizziness, lightheadedness and confusion

Coughing, wheezing or full feeling in mouth or throat

Swelling of lips, tongue, eyelids, ears and hands or feet

Shock may occur if the body can’t pump blood efficiently to the vital organs

Toxic reactions occur as a result of a bite from a venomous spider or multiple stings from other insects. The symptoms of toxic reactions are similar to anaphylaxis, but may also include:

Muscle spasms

Headache

Rapid swelling at bite site

Fatigue and drowsiness

Fainting

Bites and stings can also cause localized infections that require medical attention. Some infection symptoms to watch for include:

Fever

Drainage of pus

Worsening warmth, pain and swelling

Red streaks leading away from bite site

It’s also important to seek medical care if you suspect you may have an insect-borne illness such as Lyme disease. Some symptoms of insect-borne illnesses include:

Fever

Rash

Chills

Joint stiffness

Aches and pains

Headaches

Unfortunately, many people don't realize that they are allergic until they have a reaction. If you know you have an allergy, you can carry an EpiPen that can administer a life-saving dose of epinephrine. Some people may also wear a medical alert bracelet if they are severely allergic, to inform others of their allergy.

Seeking Medical Treatment for Insect Bites and Stings in Central PA

If you’ve been bitten or stung by an insect, are unsure of the proper treatment or have developed an allergic reaction, visit one of our urgent care centers in Mechanicsburg, Carlisle or Harrisburg. Our board-certified primary care and ER trained physicians can evaluate your insect or spider bite to determine what treatment is needed. Use our online check-in form to reserve a time that is convenient for you. Our friendly and knowledgeable staff will soon have you on your way and enjoying the beautiful outdoors in no time.