You know the feeling: The worry usually sets in during the fast walk from the nature hike to your car or when your child returns to the house after day camp. You diligently scan their arms and legs and look for any signs of discomfort on their face. That’s when you see it — those dreaded red bumps.
It’s confirmed: your child got bit by something.
Bug bites can range from irritating to dangerous. To spot the difference, Chicago Parent talked with Illinois-based pediatricians and dermatologists about the most regular offenders, prevention, treatment tips and other need-to-knows.
Most common bugs that bite in Illinois
A small red bump isn’t the only reaction to bug bites, according to Adena Rosenblatt, who has a doctorate in molecular pharmacology and is an assistant professor in dermatology at UChicago Medicine Comer Children’s Hospital.
Her message to parents: Don’t worry if your child’s reaction to a bug bite appears in hives or appears large since kids typically have “more robust bug bite reactions than adults.”
While most pediatricians and dermatologists agree it’s nearly impossible to determine from a bite which insect is the culprit, each bug comes with its own prevention tips.
A normal mosquito bite can cause a white and reddish bump, small blisters, dark spots and “itchy, reddish-brown” bump or bumps, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Rosenblatt and Amanda Osta, a pediatrician at the University of Illinois Health, say mosquitos cause the most bug bites they’ve seen.
Emptying sitting water from buckets or plant pots can prevent mosquitos and the diseases they can bring, such as West Nile virus, which Osta says will likely spring up in Illinois during late summer.
Because ticks are arachnids, their bites look different than other bites with a “rim of red, a lighter rim around it and then a red circle in the center,” Rosenblatt says.
One of the biggest worries concerning ticks is Lyme disease, which is the “most common vector-borne disease in the U.S.” and is carried through deer ticks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.
Erin Jamen-Esposito, a pediatrician at UChicago Medicine – Medical Group who has a doctorate in pediatrics, says parents should thoroughly check their children for ticks after a day in the woods or at a forest preserve since they can be stuck in the body for days. Ten minutes in the backyard flower garden may not warrant an inspection, she adds.
After finding one, pull the whole insect out with tweezers — ensuring that the head isn’t still embedded — and throw it away in a bag or flush it down the toilet, Osta says. If you think a visit to the doctor is warranted, bring the tick to the physician so they can determine if the tick can carry diseases.
Man’s best friend may be bringing in one of man’s worst (tiny) enemies. Regular veterinarian appointments will help keep fleas out of the house, Rosenblatt says.
Flea bites usually appear as itchy welts on the lower half of the body and in elbows and knees, according to the Midwest Express Clinic.
If you’re traveling this summer and using multiple hotels and Airbnbs or even moving apartments, bed bugs might be an unwanted guest. Bed bugs leave small, red and itchy bites, the Midwest Express Clinic says.
Rosenblatt recommends hiring an exterminator specifically for bed bugs, which look like apple seeds among the bed’s creases.
“It’s very rare to have spiders that bite and when they do bite, it doesn’t create your typical bug bite appearance,” Rosenblatt says. Bites from arachnids can be larger, redder and cause swelling.
Stinging insects: bees, wasps and hornets
To ensure you aren’t sending RSVP invites to bees and other insects that sting, the best offense is a defense since regular bug repellent won’t prevent them, Jamen-Esposito says.
Allergic reactions to stings can cause difficulty breathing and swallowing, according to Chicago-based Lakeview Pediatrics.
General prevention tips and questions
Why do some people get more bites than others?
Unlike parents, bugs play favorites — when it comes to who they bite, that is.
“You can have a group of people sitting together outside and sometimes one person will be the target for the insects, and they just seem to be the one who gets the most bites,” Jamen-Esposito says. “Some people can respond bigger to the same insect and have a larger reaction. It’s all patient-dependent, not necessarily bug-dependent.”
When should I call the doctor?
Rosenblatt says parents should call the doctor if a bite isn’t improving or is worsening after a few days.
She adds that unless the child is picking at the area, pus or an open sore aren’t normal reactions. Other symptoms that can be cause for a visit to a pediatrician include a fever, headache, stomachache and difficulty breathing.
Here’s what experts agree are the best ways to prevent bites.
Know the time and surroundings
Bugs are most active during dawn and dusk, Rosenblatt notes, so consider planning a trip to the nearest botanical garden to avoid those times. Avoiding heavily wooded areas can also help prevent bites.
Apply bug repellent
Standing in the pharmacy aisle with shelves upon shelves of sprays, lotions, sticks and bracelets advertised to repel insects can be stressful, but it doesn’t need to be.
Ingredients, or one ingredient in particular, is more important than the brand, Rosenblatt says.
DEET — short for N, N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide — is one of the most important ingredients for bug repellents, experts say.
While DEET isn’t approved for children 2 months and younger, parents of older children should look for products containing 10-30% of the American Academy of Pediatrics-approved ingredient.
If your children are still in the put-their-hands-in-their-mouth stage, avoid DEET, Jamen-Esposito says, since too much DEET — ingested or through too many reapplications — can cause rashes.
When it comes to sunscreen, apply the sunblock first and then the insect repellent. Also, avoid two-in-one products that contain SPF and DEET, since overexposure to the latter can cause rashes, Jamen-Esposito notes.
When it comes to blocking bugs, keep covered, experts say.
Jamen-Esposito recommends pants with the elastic band at the ankle, such as joggers, and socks over the cuff — no matter how unstylish the look may be.
“Bell bottoms or boot leg pants are not going to be your friends for bugs,” she says.
Mosquito nets might not make it in your Instagram post about your family’s five-mile hike, but they can be helpful for young children who can’t use DEET or for blocking bees and wasps.
Put down the perfume
Floral-scented perfumes, lotions and detergent can attract bugs that bite and insects that sting, such as bees, wasps and hornets, according to Jamen-Esposito.
If bit, try these bug bite treatment options
No matter how hard parents try to be proactive as they cover their children with bug spray, those pesky insects have a way of getting under our skin (literally). Here are some ways to treat bug bite reactions, which can last for several days:
- Medicines: Antihistamine medicines like Benadryl, Zyrtec and Allegra and hydrocortisone creams and topical steroids can help lessen the itch and redness, according to Rosenblatt.
- At-home care: Applying cold compresses can alleviate itches and prevent infections, Osta says. Lakeview Pediatrics also recommends “applying a firm, sharp, direct, steady pressure,” such as a fingernail or pen cap, on the bite for 10 seconds to reduce itchiness.
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