Summer hasn’t officially arrived yet, but many Canadians have already experienced early summerlike weather. Hot temperatures mean more exposed skin, more time spent outside – and usually the occasional bug bite. Most bites are not serious, but it’s important to know when to seek medical attention.
Bug bites: The offending critters
Mosquitoes and biting flies, like black flies and horse flies, are among the most common summertime pests. Mosquitoes are most active at dawn and dusk; if you are in an affected area it’s best to stay indoors at these times. Ticks live mostly in wooded areas. They have been associated with Lyme disease in some parts of Canada. An insect repellent containing DEET or permethrin will help reduce the chances of being bitten. Follow the manufacturer’s directions for proper application to ensure the best results and safety.
Cut down on bug bites by wearing light colors and covering up as much as possible. Wear a heat, long sleeves and long pants. In areas with tick infestations tuck shirts into pants, and tuck pant legs into socks or hiking boots; do a tick check when leaving such areas.
Bees and wasps are pollinators that are beneficial to our environment. They generally only sting if they feel threatened. Your mother was right about these critters: Avoid disturbing them, and if they come too near try to remain still until they go away. When outside, avoid wearing sweet perfumes or floral prints that might draw them to you. Keep food covered, and always check any food or drink before serving it to children.
Spider bites in Canada
There are 1,400 species of spiders in Canada, and only one or two of these has a medically significant bite. Spiders are another beneficial arthropod. They eat the very insects that are pests to us, helping us to cut down on the use of chemical pesticides that are potentially harmful to both us and the environment.
Dr. Pierre Paquin, an entomologist trained in Montreal, thinks spiders have an undeserved reputation for biting people.
“As a rule, 99 percent of the people that think they have been bitten are wrong and the problem is caused by something else, often fleas,” he says. Other culprits can be environmental exposure to chemicals, bacterial infections or even abrupt changes in humidity.
Spiders are not aggressive and, like bees, will generally only bite humans if threatened. This can happen if they are handled roughly, or trapped between clothing and the skin. Even the hobo spiders that have raised concern in British Columbia do not attack people, Paquin says.
“All spiders are predators and therefore have the potential to bite to kill their prey, as dragonflies and ladybirds are doing,” he says. But there are few documented cases of spider bites in Canada. “There are probably more people that have been bitten by ladybirds.”
How do I know if it’s a bug bite?
“No source of ‘bites’ is nearly so overdiagnosed as are spider bites,” writes Whitney Cranshaw in “Mystery Bites and Itches – Arthropod and Non-Arthropod Sources in Colorado.” “Unfortunately this situation is often aggravated not only by self-diagnosis but also by misdiagnosis by medical personnel.”
The best way to know if you’ve been bitten or stung is to catch the critter in the act. If you can, preserve the attacker for identification purposes in case you need to seek medical attention. Conditions like Lyme disease can take a few weeks to become symptomatic. Be prepared to hold onto that bug for a while.
If you are bitten by a tick, avoid petroleum jelly or attempts to burn it off. Instead, grasp the tick firmly with tweezers and pull gently. If stung by a bee, remove bee stingers by scraping them out with a finger nail or credit card. Avoid pinching the stinger or using tweezers, as this can inject more venom into the wound. Wasps do not leave their stingers behind.
First aid for bug bites
Most stings and bites can be cared for at home. Wash the affected area with soap and water. Apply a cold compress or ice pack if there is any swelling. Acetaminophen can lessen any associated pain. Ibuprofen will address both pain and swelling.
Several options exist for itching. Montreal naturopath Joanna Lynn recommends both topical antihistamines like Benadryl and hydrocortisone creams like Claritin. Ammonia-based products such as AfterBite offer a third alternative. It is best to buy an appropriate product before it is actually needed, so it will be on hand when the bugs do bite. Consult a pharmacist for help choosing the right product for your family. If you or your little ones tend to scratch at itchy spots, keep an antibiotic ointment nearby to prevent bites from getting infected.
Natural remedies for insect bites
If you get caught without a commercial itch remedy, try preparing a paste of baking soda to soothe bug bites. Applying a cotton ball soaked in apple cider vinegar is also popular for relieving the swelling that sometimes accompanies bites or bee stings. Tea tree oil and lavender oil will both soothe and help to prevent infection. Herbalist Merlyn Seeley suggests clove oil as well, for its ability to numb the skin.
Serious bug bite reactions: Time to see the doctor
Although most bug bites will heal fine at home, there are a few occasions when medical help should be sought. If you live in an area that has poisonous spiders and you know you have been bitten, it is best to see a doctor. Spider bites that result in cramping, nausea, heart palpitations, headache, dizziness, numbness or other severe symptoms are also a reason to see a doctor.
If you develop a bull’s-eye rash about three weeks after a known tick bite, or even a visit to a tick-infested area, you may be having symptoms of Lyme disease. Other signs include stiff neck or headache, joint pain, chills or fever, and fatigue.
People who are allergic to stings or bites may also require medical care. One of the more common allergies of this kind is to bee stings. Affected individuals should speak to their health professional, as they may need to carry an epinephrine injector such as an EpiPen.
Seek medical attention immediately for anyone who has had to inject epinephrine, or who experiences symptoms of severe allergic reaction or anaphylaxis: feeling faint, weak or anxious, rapid heartbeat, flushed face, swelling around the mouth or tongue, difficulty breathing, nausea or vomiting, cramps or diarrhea.
In all cases of suspected bug bites, remain calm and seek appropriate assistance promptly. Remember that the right first aid, and seeing a qualified medical professional when needed, is the best way to achieve a positive outcome.
Robert G. Bennett, MSC, PHD and Richard S. Vetter, MSC, “An approach to spider bites.” Canadian Family Physican
Whitney Cranshaw, “Mystery Bites and Itches – Arthropod and Non-Arthropod Sources in Colorado.” Colorado State University Extension
Tom Grier, “DEET vs. permethrin as a tick repellent.” LymeNet Europe
“Insect repellents.” Health Canada
Joanna Lynn, ND, CHN, CSNC, interview
“Natural home remedies: Insect and spider bites.” Best Health
Pierre Paquin, PhD, interview
Merlyn Seeley, interview
“Spiders pest note.” Health Canada
“Spider bites.” Shoppers Drug Mart
“Severe allergic reactions.” Montreal Children’s Hospital