When to See a Doctor for a Bug Bite

By Robynn Lowe
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
October 3, 2022

 Bug bites and insect stings are common. In most cases, the discomfort, itching, or redness caused by a bite or sting will improve without treatment within a few hours or days. However, sometimes you need to see a medical provider.

If any of your symptoms fails to improve or worsens within a few days or if you experience any symptoms of a severe allergic reaction (including difficulty breathing, dizziness, or a swollen face or mouth), seek medical attention immediately.

When to See a Doctor for a Bug Bite

It’s not uncommon for bug bites to cause small, swollen, red lumps to form on the skin. In some cases, bug bites can also cause itchiness and pain. These symptoms do not warrant medical attention as long as they start to improve within a few days. 

However, if you notice any of the following after a bug bite or sting, contact your medical provider for care:

  • Symptoms that don’t improve or that worsen
  • A bite or sting near the eyes or in your mouth or throat
  • A patch of red and inflamed skin that is larger than 3.75 inches (10 centimeters)
  • Flu-like symptoms, including a fever or swollen glands

Additionally, the following symptoms could be a sign of a serious allergic reaction. If you experience any of the below, call 911 or seek emergency medical treatment:

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Types of Bug Bites

Several insects can cause a bug bite or sting, including:

  • Wasps
  • Hornets
  • Bees
  • Horseflies
  • Ticks
  • Mosquitoes
  • Fleas
  • Bedbugs
  • Spiders
  • Midges

Determining If a Bug Bite Is Infected

It’s important to monitor your bug bite for signs of infection in the days following the initial bite or sting. Signs of infection can include:

  • Increasing redness, swelling, or pain
  • Pus
  • Flu-like symptoms, including a high fever

If you experience any of these symptoms, contact your medical provider for care.

At-Home Treatment for Bug Bites

If your bug bite or sting causes mild symptoms, you can treat the symptoms at home. At-home treatment methods include:

  • Remove the sting or tick if present and still embedded in the skin
  • Gently clean the bite or sting with soap and water
  • Apply a cold compress or ice pack for at least 10 minutes to reduce swelling
  • Elevate the affected area to reduce swelling
  • Avoid scratching the bite or sting
  • If needed, use an over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamine or anti-itch cream
  • Don’t use an OTC pain medicine (unless advised by a medical professional)
  • Don’t apply a tourniquet
  • Don’t apply home remedies such as baking soda or vinegar

Medical Treatment for Bug Bites

Medical treatment vary depending on the type of bug bite you have and the severity of your symptoms. If the bite is infected, your provider may prescribe oral or topical antibiotics. In severe cases, minor surgery may be recommended to drain an abscess.

In the case of allergic reaction, an injection of intramuscular epinephrine should be administered immediately. Epinephrine can be repeated every 5-15 minutes, depending on the severity of your symptoms. In some cases, your provider may also recommend additional treatments, including corticosteroids, albuterol, and/or antihistamines. In the rare but occasional case of contact with a venomous insect, antivenom treatment is available after consultation with a poison control center.

Though rare, some bug bites can also spread disease, such as malaria, Lyme disease, and West Nile virus. In those cases, consult a medical provider for the best treatment plan. In the case of Lyme disease, treatment strategies may be ongoing. 

Risks of Untreated Bug Bites

Most bug bites cause mild symptoms that resolve on their own within a few days. But if you experience symptoms of an infection, leaving the bite untreated can allow the infection to spread, which can lead to a more serious condition. If an allergic reaction is untreated, it can lead to death.

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Not all bug bites and stings are avoidable, but there are several strategies that can help to prevent them:

  • Use an EPA-registered insect repellent
  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants
  • Treat clothing with permethrin
  • Use bug screens on windows and doors
  • Use a mosquito net if sleeping outside or in a tent
  • Avoid areas with tall grass
  • Walk in the center of trails
  • Check clothing for ticks
  • Check gear and pets for ticks and other insects
  • Shower after being outdoors
  • Avoid using products with strong perfumes
  • Avoid wearing floral-patterned or dark clothing
  • Avoid insect nests
  • Avoid camping or hiking near still water (including ponds and swamps)
  • Keep food and drinks covered when eating outdoors

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are the signs of infection with a bug bite?
Signs of an infected bug bite include increasing redness, swelling, or pain around the affected area; a bite that discharges pus; and flu-like symptoms, including a high fever.
What does a concerning bug bite look like?
A bug bite that causes symptoms that worsen or don’t improve within a few days may warrant medical attention. If you experience any signs of an allergic reaction, like trouble breathing or shortness of breath, seek immediate medical attention.
What does the doctor do for a bug bite?
If your bug bite is infected, a healthcare provider may prescribe antibiotics. For an allergic reaction, a provider may immediately administer epinephrine. If less severe, they may give you a course of oral or topical steroids.
When should you get a bug bite looked at?
If your symptoms worsen or fail to improve within a few days, contact a medical provider. Also seek medical care if you experience shortness of breath, chest pain, or any flu-like symptoms after a bug bite.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Robynn Lowe

Robynn Lowe is a board certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over 15 years in the medical field. Robynn received her Bachelor's and Master's degrees from Florida Atlantic University and has been practicing in rural family medicine since. Robynn is married to her college sweetheart, Raymond and they have three awesome children. When Robynn isn't with patients you can find her shopping, coaching her kids sports teams, or spending time on the water.