Dont Bug Me

All bugs are insects but not all insects are bugs.  Not to worry though…  In North America there are relatively few dangerous insect predators.  There are examples such as Ticks which carry parasites and Lyme disease, to simple "don't touch" bugs like the completely flightless American Oil Beetle whose secretions can cause irritating skin blisters or many more simply called Blister Beetles that are more than happy to live up to their name. 

Ticks can be thwarted with high boots, long socks, or long pants.  For the beetles, some of them are perfectly fine to touch as long as they are permitted to roam freely and you don't startle them, but unless you're fairly knowledgeable, it's probably best to just observe them.

Not Common, Fortunately

Now, on the other hand, if you see an attractive, velvety ant (named, appropriately enough, Velvet Ants) dressed in black and brilliant red, blue, yellow, or orange, get away…  They are beautiful to look at, and very attractive to children.

They are all bad, but the red & black ones are known as Cow Killers and they're not ants at all.  Velvet Ants are actually Solitary Wasps that have evolved to resemble ants.  The females are flightless with no wings; the males have wings (but no stingers).  The female Cow Killer sting is among the most painful of all insects and alleged to be sufficient to kill a cow (not really).  Her stinger can be aimed and pointed in just about any direction.  When she feels threatened she can continue to sting you as much as she wants, and although it won't kill you, the mind-numbingly pain may make you wish it had!  This one is best treated by a doctor with hydrocortisone, antibiotic ointment, and ice.

More Common

Red Pavement Ants love human food.  You have almost certainly seen them yourself in the parking lot of the local fast food chain.  When some unlucky kid drops their ice cream cone, within minutes the entire thing is a writing mass of red pavement ants, often so thick you can't identify what the thing is underneath the pile. 

Stepping on some can result in dozens of them moving up your shoes and legs, and many resultant bites with their little pincers.  Generally, you can wipe them off or stamp your feet until they fall off.  These are the irritating sort of attack that can be treated yourself, unless you are allergic, requiring medical attention.

Fire Ants on the other hand clasp on with their mandibles and sting repeatedly, so there will be a little circular pattern around the point where they were hanging on.  They have to be pulled off one at a time after they have latched on. 

The stings will itch, and afterwards little pustules will form, but they're not really filled with pus, simply dead tissue.  It's best not to break them, because of the risk of infection.  If they do get broken keep them clean with soap and water to reduce the risk.

Assassin bugs are nasty little guys.  They hide a little dagger under their chin, grab onto what they want to kill, usually other insects, and stab repeatedly until it is dead, then they drink the juice.  It, too, is capable of inflicting remarkable pain, so just look and don't touch. 

You should note that they are also called kissing bugs because they like to attack humans around the mouth area.  If attacked in Mexico, Central or South America, consult a doctor to be checked for Chagas disease.  They tend to exist in adobe, mud, or thatch houses, rather than regular well-constructed structures like hotels.

On the Road

Speaking of hotels, sometimes travelers can pick up Bedbug infestations somewhere and drop them off in a hotel.  Then you can bring them home yourself when you visit that hotel.  Bed bugs can live for many months without food (say, in your empty luggage) and then hop onto your own bed when you go to pack for a trip. 

In a hotel, leave your suitcases on the luggage rack, rather than on the bed or floor.  The little guys can't climb the metal legs.  Hang what can be hung, and inspect drawers carefully before using them, as well as the seams of mattresses.

Bedbug bites are painless, and usually occur in rows of three (called breakfast, lunch, and dinner) or more.  The problem is they can manifest immediately or take up to ten days to appear so it's sometimes difficult to identify the source.  They can be painful or itchy, and your doctor may prescribe a corticosteroid ointment to ease your symptoms.

Common Stingers

Bees, wasps, hornets, and their ilk have sometimes been the bane of the existence of gardeners.  Generally speaking, as long as you're not near their nest, this particular group will avoid you.  They generally react in a defensive manner, but there are exceptions.

The European Honeybee, the most popular type in North America, will give you about 9 seconds near the nest before they decide you're a threat.  That's generally plenty of time to walk right by unaffected.  The Africanized Honeybee version however reacts within half a second. 

European bees, if you trespass, may pursue you for 300 feet.  Africanized bees are good for about a mile, and it's not a couple hundred, but rather thousands, often emptying the whole hive.

Bald-faced Hornets are a useful species because they feed on flies and other Yellow Jacket species.  The hornets are aggressive, so best to observe them from a distance.

Dealing with It

When you are stung, treatment can often be done at home by removing the stinger.  Scrape against it with the edge of a credit card so as not to squeeze it and inject the remaining toxin. 

Putting hydrocortisone cream on it can help with itchiness and swelling, but an ice cube (with a layer of cloth between) can provide numbing and immediate pain relief for about 20 minutes per hour.  You can also take antihistamines to help with the itching and swelling.  Ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help with pain.

Some recommend vinegar for wasp stings, and ammonia or chlorine bleach for bee stings.  While it is true that bee venom is acidic and wasp venom is alkaline it is beneath the skin and the chemicals cannot actually get to it.  It disperses quickly away from the entry site so any benefit is purely psychological.  The good thing is that the placebo effect does cause us to feel less pain because we expect it to do something.

Of course with multiple stings (especially > 10), it's generally helpful to consult with a physician, such as you might find at your local urgent care center, particularly if you note an unusual reaction.  Swelling, difficulty breathing, or anything of this nature is evidence that the victim needs immediate care and attention.  Don't hesitate as symptoms can get worse and become life threatening.

The Ordinary

Black flies, mosquitoes, and other little blood suckers generally don't require the attention of a physician.  The best defense of course is to use an insect repellent such as DEET or Picaridin, both of which are considered safe for everyone including pregnant or breastfeeding women, and children.

Those affected by the incredible itch can use all sorts of traditional remedies such as calamine lotion, an OTC or prescription strength corticosteroid ointment/hydrocortisone to deal with it. 

Other options include the clever little device called an ItchGo.  It's hard to find, but handy.  It uses piezo-electric electronics to create a high-voltage, tiny current, which supposedly ionizes the anticoagulant factors in the mosquito saliva protein and stops the itch when clicked against the skin a few times.  Having used one, it seems to be effective, but it may be the placebo effect once again.  China seems to be a popular source for these little items. 

The Takeaway

Any extreme reaction to an assault by an insect is worthy of your attention.  Unusual swelling at the site, swelling of the tongue, difficulty breathing, muscular weakness, syncope (fainting), or lightheadedness, swelling eyelids or lips—anything atypical is worth a doctor's attention.

If you or a family member has known allergies, make sure that you know where your local Urgent Care Clinic is located.  Even if you use an Epipen auto-injector (epinephrine injection), there is the possibility that a single dose may be insufficient. 

It is certainly worth the trouble to be checked out after you have used an Epipen. Everything can seem to be fine but as the effects of the epinephrine wear off there could be a relapse that you're unprepared for.

Don't let the insects BUG YOU!  Stay aware and be prepared!