Insect Bites and Stings: When to Go to the ER

Most bug bites and stings are just an annoyance, causing minor itching or burning that goes away on its own with time. But bites and stings can become emergencies if there is an allergic reaction or the area becomes infected. Here are some tips to help you know when to call 9-1-1 or head to the emergency room.

Allergic Reactions

Even if you’ve been stung before with no problems, you can get a sudden and severe allergic reaction to an insect sting or bite. Signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction may include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Rash at the sting/bite area or other places on the body
  • Hives (red, inflamed areas of the skin)
  • Swelling of the face, lips, mouth, throat or tongue
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Fast heartbeat

A severe, system-wide allergic reaction is called anaphylaxis and can be deadly. People with known reactions may carry epinephrine shots, which should be immediately administered (follow directions on the shot). Anytime anaphylaxis is suspected, you should immediately call 9-1-1.

Mosquito-Borne Illnesses

With the Zika virus all over the news, most people understand the dangers of mosquito-borne illness. Zika is still very rare in the United States and there have been no cases so far in the Kansas City region. But there are other diseases mosquitos carry that can cause similar flu-like symptoms. If you have mosquito bites followed by cold or flu-like symptoms, it’s best to be seen by a doctor.

Tick Bites and Lyme Disease

Unlike Zika, there are seasonal cases of Lyme disease in the Kansas City region. Not all ticks carry Lyme disease and not all tick bites will result in infection. If you find a tick, use steady, gentle pressure to remove it so it doesn’t break. Head to the emergency room if you have any of these symptoms after a tick bite:

  • Large, raised rash, sometimes in a bulls-eye pattern around the bite
  • Swollen glands, fever, body aches or flu-like symptoms

If you do find a tick, save it in a jar or write down a description. Not all ticks carry the same diseases and knowing the type of tick that bit you can help doctors to treat your symptoms.


There’s a reason why your mom always told you to stop scratching those mosquito bites—infection is a real risk. Infections usually appear about three days after the bite or sting, but can appear anytime. Here are some signs to watch out for:

  • Redness or swelling around the bite/sting site that gets worse with time (some redness is normal)
  • Fever
  • Open sores
  • Red streaks from the bite or sting area up toward the heart

Rare, Poisonous Bites

Bites from poisonous spiders like the brown-recluse or black widow sound scary, but it is extremely rare for anyone to die from them. Young children and the elderly are most at risk for serious complications. The bites of these insects themselves are often painless – people may not even know they’ve been bitten. But pain at the site of the bite can occur later, along with muscle aches or spasms, flu-like symptoms, headache and vomiting. Severe symptoms like these from any cause require immediate medical attention.

If You Need The Emergency Room

One thing the emergency room staff can’t tell you about your bug bite or sting—which insect bit you. Most bites or stings look similar and it’s often impossible to know for sure what insect did the damage. But no matter what the cause is, the doctors and nurses at your local HCA Midwest Health ER are ready to address your symptoms, provide relief and help ensure your recovery.

Still not sure whether you should head to the emergency room or your symptoms? Talk to a registered nurse 24 hours per day, 7 days a week by calling 1-800-386-9355 (Nurses On Call is a free service of HCA Midwest Health).

Fast care when you need it most.

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