How to Treat Insect Bites and Spider Stings

Most bug bites and stings are a minor irritation, and you may simply want to relieve the pain, itch, and swelling. But you might be worried it they have the potential for more serious consequences.

The good news is that most of bites and stings you get from North American critters are harmless in themselves, but some people can have a moderate to severe reaction, even anaphylaxis. On other continents, you face a greater risk of deadly infections that are spread by bug bites, and there are some poisonous insects.

Here is what you should do when you get bitten or stung in North America.


Identify the Insect That Bit or Stung You

Widow spider.

Gunter Ziesler / PhotoLibrary / Getty Images

Insects, spiders, and scorpions are capable of causing very painful reactions. It's very helpful if you know what did the biting or stinging:

  • Mosquito bites can expose you to serious diseases like West Nile virus or Zika. Mosquitoes are usually found near standing water.
  • Tick bites can expose you to Rocky Mountain spotted fever or Lyme disease. They are usually found in wooded areas.
  • Biting flies can be found around garbage or waste.
  • Fire ant bites give burning sensations and pain.
  • Flea bites often occur in clusters and you can often pick them up when around pets.
  • Bedbugs give itchy red bumps that are usually in a pattern of two to three in a row and occur at night. (Learn more about diagnosis and treatment.)
  • Spider bites and, especially, scorpion stings can be more worrisome, even potentially deadly.

The reality, however, is that most bites are from unidentified bugs. In the worst-case scenario, they can be immediately dangerous because of the possibility of anaphylaxis.



Baby with hives

princessdlaf / Getty Images

The most serious concern is a bite that triggers an extreme reaction in a sensitive person, known as anaphylaxis. While the bite or sting is uncomfortable for most people, it can set off an overreaction of the immune system in a small number of people. Without immediate treatment, there is a risk of death.

Look for signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis:

  • Itching
  • Swelling (other than the site of the sting)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Heart palpitations
  • Chest pain
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Hives or redness

If you see or feel any of those symptoms, call 911 immediately. If the person who was bitten has a history of severe allergy and carries epinephrine, those signs and symptoms tell you that it's time to use the epinephrine. Call 911 first, then use the EpiPen (or whichever brand the person is carrying).


Ease the Pain of Insect Bites and Stings

Woman with ice pack on elbow
Patrik Giardino / Getty Images

If you've been bitten or stung, move to a place away from further exposure to the bugs to prevent getting more bites or stings.

Here are some basic things you can do to ease the pain, itching, burning, or swelling from a bug bite or sting:

  1. If you've been stung, remove the stinger if it is still in your skin.
  2. Apply an ice pack or cold compress to the site of the sting. Alternate on and off to prevent tissue damage and don't place the ice directly on the skin. Usually 20 minutes on and 20 minutes off.
  3. If the person with the bite or sting has any involuntary muscle movements, call 911 immediately. Black widow spider bites can cause muscle spasms.
  4. For pain relief, try topical treatments like sting swabs, hydrocortisone lotion, or lidocaine preparations. Acetaminophen and ibuprofen are good for pain. You may want to use an antihistamine such as Benadryl if you have swelling.

Keep an eye out for signs of illness over the first few days following a bug bite. Fever, jaundice (skin or eyes turning yellow), sweating, or pus oozing from the site of the bite all require a call to the doctor.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • When should I be concerned about a bug bite?

    Most insect bites are little more than a nuisance, but some people have more serious reactions. Symptoms that should be seen by a doctor include: 

    • Hives
    • A large area of swelling and redness
    • Bruising
    • Low-grade fever
    • Pus or drainage
    • Shortness of breath
    • Swollen lymph nodes
  • How do you stop bug bites from itching?

    Most bug bites clear up in a few hours to a few days. Try to avoid scratching an insect bite, which can make it worse and lead to infection. Instead, try ice to relieve the itch. Apply a cold pack to the bite for 10 minutes and repeat as needed.

    Over-the-counter anti-itch remedies or calamine lotion can also help to soothe an itchy bug bite. Or you can make a paste of baking soda and a little water. Apply it to the area for 10 minutes, then wipe it off.

    For more severe itching, an antihistamine like Benadryl can help.

  • How can you tell the difference between a mosquito bite and a spider bite?

    In general, a mosquito bite will cause a small, swollen, and itchy lump, while a spider bite is typically painful as well. Mosquito bites are often misshapen while spider bites are round. In addition, some spider bites leave two holes while a mosquito bite only leaves one hole.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Brites-neto J, Duarte KM, Martins TF. Tick-borne infections in human and animal population worldwide. Vet World. 2015;8(3):301-15. doi:10.14202/vetworld.2015.301-315

  3. Haddad junior V, Larsson CE. Anaphylaxis caused by stings from the Solenopsis invicta, lava-pés ant or red imported fire ant. An Bras Dermatol. 2015;90(3 Suppl 1):22-5. doi:10.1590/abd1806-4841.20153420

  4. Peres G, Yugar LBT, Haddad junior V. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner sign: a hallmark of flea and bedbug bites. An Bras Dermatol. 2018;93(5):759-760. doi:10.1590/abd1806-4841.20187384

  5. Rahmani F, Banan khojasteh SM, Ebrahimi bakhtavar H, Rahmani F, Shahsavari nia K, Faridaalaee G. Poisonous spiders: bites, symptoms, and treatment; an educational review. Emerg (Tehran). 2014;2(2):54-8

  6. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mosquito bite symptoms and treatment.

Additional Reading
Rod Brouhard, EMT-P

By Rod Brouhard, EMT-P
Rod Brouhard is an emergency medical technician paramedic (EMT-P), journalist, educator, and advocate for emergency medical service providers and patients.