Insect bite guide: Spiders, ticks and fleas


In this article: 

  • Most insect bites cause mild to moderate itching and can be treated at home.  
  • Insect bites can occur anywhere, including in and around your own home.
  • Some people may suffer more severe symptoms from insect bites, including trouble breathing, paralysis and more.

Insect bite guide: spiders, ticks and fleas

Whether you love to be outdoors or are more of a homebody, you can still get bug bites. Insects such as spiders, ticks and fleas can bite if you get too close to them. But how can you tell what insect is responsible for your symptoms?

“Unless you see the insect responsible for your bug bite, it’s often difficult to tell what it was. However, there are some clues you can use to determine the insect responsible for your bite, and in many cases, treatment is the same,” says Robert Lichfield, D.O., with Providence Urgent Care – Providence Medical Park.

Insect bite overview

Insect bites cause your body to have an immune response. Your body will detect the bite as a foreign object and try to flush it out.

Insect bites trigger your immune system to produce histamine, which increases your blood flow and white blood cell count around the affected area. Histamine causes the area around the bug bite to swell and become itchy and sometimes painful.

Spider bites

Spider bites sound scary, but Dr. Lichfield says they aren’t as common as people think. “Many people come into the office convinced they have a spider bite, but often it’s something else. Most spider bites are benign and not poisonous,” Lichfield says.

Spiders can live almost anywhere, including indoors. They tend to be found outdoors in wooded areas but can migrate indoors through plants, animals and cracks around your home. Non-venomous spiders can be beneficial because they eat insects like mosquitos and flies.  

Some characteristics of spider bites include: 

  • Discoloration
  • Redness
  • Small bump or blister
  • Swelling 
  • Tiny fang marks or puncture wounds where the spider broke your skin 

The black widow spider and brown recluse spider are the two most dangerous spiders in the United States. Both spiders can be found in undisturbed rocks, leaf piles and under structures. If they wander indoors, you may find them in dark, cluttered spaces. Black widows and brown recluse spiders are venomous so their bites require immediate medical attention. 

  • Black widows – These spiders produce a neurotoxin that causes severe pain at the bite area that spreads throughout the body. 
  • Brown recluse – The venom from a brown recluse spider bite causes stinging pain and destroys the skin tissue around the area. A medical professional will need to clean the bite carefully. If a brown recluse bites you, you may need wound care for several months.

Flea bites

You may associate fleas with animals. However, people can get flea bites as well. Fleas are small wingless insects that travel by jumping from place to place. They live in damp areas around trees, bushes and tall grass. They can jump onto animals or people when they walk by.

Characteristics of flea bites include:

  • Bites are commonly on arms and legs
  • Clusters of small, red bumps
  • Red “halo” around the center

Flea bites cause intense itching and can become painful. You may develop a rash or hives near the affected area. Flea bites will disappear without treatment, but you must eliminate fleas in your home. Fleas can be difficult to get rid of because they lay eggs quickly. 

If your pet has fleas, it will need a special bath and topical cream. You can prevent your pet from carrying fleas by keeping them on a year-round flea and tick medication.

You can eliminate fleas around your home by:

  • Steam cleaning carpets
  • Vacuuming floors, mattresses, couches and chairs
  • Washing all bedding

Tick bites 

Different types of ticks can be found in wooded areas throughout the United States. While tick bites are usually painless and cause few symptoms, ticks carry disease. The most common tick-borne diseases are Lyme and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, both bacterial infections. Symptoms of severe Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever can be debilitating.  

Ticks live in areas with long grass and trees. They also live in areas with decaying leaves and other plant material. Unlike other insects, ticks latch onto your skin. If you find a tick, you should remove it as quickly as possible. 

“If you find a tick in your skin, there’s no need to panic. You can use tweezers, get as close to your skin as possible, and slowly pull the tick out. Most of the time, the whole tick will come out. If you’re worried you didn’t get it all, you should see a doctor,” Dr. Lichfield says. 

Signs you should see a provider for a tick bite include: 

  • A red bullseye rash around the tick bite 
  • Flu-like symptoms after removing the tick 
  • Pus draining from the wound 
  • Red streaks around the affected area

Your provider will examine your tick bite and prescribe an antibiotic if necessary. If you still have the tick, bring it to your appointment. 

First aid and treatment for insect bites

Most insect bites, including mosquito bites and chigger bites, are easily treated at home with over-the-counter antihistamine creams. Many insects such as mosquitos, are mostly harmless and cause itchiness. If you have an insect bite:  

  • Clean the area well with soap and warm water. Remove any part of the insect, including stingers.
  • Ice the bite site with a cold compress or ice pack to decrease swelling. 
  • Apply hydrocortisone lotion to the area to minimize itchiness and swelling. 
  • Take over-the-counter pain medication, such as Tylenol or Ibuprofen if you have pain. 

You could experience a severe allergic reaction or anaphylaxis to an insect bite. Symptoms that could indicate a life-threatening reaction include: 

  • Dizziness
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Shortness of breath, difficulty breathing
  • Swelling of the lips, face or eyes
  • Vomiting

“Our allergic reactions are closely tied to our immune system, which is delicate. Just because you haven’t had a severe reaction to a bug bite in the past doesn’t mean you can’t in the future. It’s important to monitor your symptoms. You want to see a doctor if you experience symptoms different than usual. I always tell patients, if you’re concerned, I want to see you,” Dr. Lichfield says. 

Treatment for a severe insect bite reaction may include:  

  • Antibiotics
  • Epinephrine
  • Steroids 

Preventing insect bites 

When it comes to bug bites, prevention is key. Fortunately, there are several ways you can prevent insect bites. 

  • Avoid wearing perfume or other scented products. 
  • Tuck pants into your socks. 
  • Use insect repellants containing DEET. 
  • Wear loose-fitting clothing, including long sleeves and pants.
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat.

“Although DEET is controversial, it does work. I use 100% DEET sparingly and have had great success. I also recommend staying in the shade, and if you’re in a wooded or grassy area, make sure you check yourself and your children for ticks as soon as you get inside,” Dr. Lichfield says. 

Contributing caregiver


Robert Lichfield, D.O., is a family medicine doctor at Providence Urgent Care – Providence Medical Park in Spokane, Washington.

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