When you’re out and about in nature you are inevitably going to come across creepy crawlies and will at some point ask yourself the question “what just bit me?”
Insect bites and stings do look different to each other and can help in identification of where that red, itchy or sore lump has come from. The picture at the top of this page will help you to identify the typical appearance of some common bites or stings.
If you really aren’t sure where your bite has come from and you are worried about some of your symptoms, seek proper medical advice and treatment if necessary. This is very important if the bite site shows signs of infection, is progressively worsening or if you develop a fever or feel unwell.
OK, we know spiders aren’t insects (they’re arachnids) but they can bite and you may well have some form of reaction at the site of a bite, so they are relevant here. The important thing to note here is that the vast majority of spider bites and spider species found in Southern Africa are not dangerous – there has never been any recorded fatal spider bite in Southern Africa, including the medically important species. Your biggest risk is of infection of the bite site, not the bite itself, so clean the area thoroughly and keep it clean.
Of the over 2200 spider species in Southern Africa, there are only a very small handful of species that are medically significant that you should be aware of:
- Black button spider
- Brown button spider
- Violin spider
- Long legged sac spider
If you have been bitten by one of these spiders, then seek medical assistance without delay.
We all know the red bump from a mosquito bite and the irritating itch that doesn’t want to go away no matter how much you scratch. Just like your mother told you, don’t scratch! It really does just make the itch worse and you also run the risk of damaging the skin and introducing bacteria that may lead to an infection forming.
It is worth noting that different people react to mosquito bites in differing amounts – some people will hardly react at all, where as others can be extremely sensitive and develop large red reactions or even blisters. You can consider using an after-bite cream to calm the itch, or speak to a pharmacist about over the counter antihistamine options if you react severely.
The absolute number one best way to beat the itch, though, is to avoid getting bitten in the first place:
- Cover up as much as you can with loose fitting clothing, especially around dusk when mosquitoes are most active. If they can’t get to your skin they can’t bite you.
- Wear light coloured clothing – apparently mosquitoes are drawn to dark colours like black and dark blue.
- Use insect repellent – feel free to experiment with natural repellents if you’re outside of malaria zones, but if you are in an area where there is a risk of malaria then use a DEET (N,N‑Diethyl-meta-toluamide) based repellent. Apply regularly throughout the day, following application instructions and timings detailed on your chosen product
- Stop mosquitoes from getting in to where you sleep. Keep tent mesh doors and windows closed at all times (this has the added benefit of excluding all other creepy crawly, slithery or flying unwanted guests out too), if your caravan has window screens then use them and if you’re staying in a proper bed in a malaria risk area then use a mosquito net.
- Keep mosquitoes away from where you are – try citronella candles or oil lamps, use plug in diffusers for inside spaces or burn mosquito coils outside.
If you are travelling to an area with a risk of contracting malaria, please take this seriously. Talk to a travel clinic or doctor about malaria prophylaxis and take all the precautions you can to avoid getting bitten. Malaria is a serious illness and can and does kill – don’t mess about with it and get proper advice. If you have any flu-like symptoms whilst you are in a malaria zone or in the weeks afterwards then seek medical assistance and tell them that you could have been exposed to malaria.
Yes, ticks are also not insects, they’re arachnids too. Just like spiders, their bites are red and bumpy and relevant to working out what bit you.
If the tick is still in place when you notice the bite and hasn’t dropped off, then you’ll want to remove it as soon as possible to minimize your risk of tick borne infections. You can use a tick removal tool and follow the instructions with the tool. Alternatively, use a pair of fine pointed tip tweezers (not the ones for eyebrows); grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible and pull upward with a steady, even pressure. Don’t jerk or twist the tick when using tweezers as you risk leaving the mouth parts behind in the skin and don’t squash the tick either. Clean the site of the bite thoroughly after removal and dispose of the tick carefully by flushing down the toilet or wrapping it tightly in tape and throwing it away responsibly.
It is best to avoid tick bites as there is a chance that they can pass on illnesses:
- When hiking, wear long trousers and long sleeves.
- Repellants that contain DEET (or diethyltoluamide) can be effective, but need to be reapplied every few hours.
- Clothing impregnated with permethrin insecticide may also help
- Regularly inspect clothing and skin for ticks
There is a risk of contracting tick bite fever after being bitten by a tick, so be on the lookout for the following symptoms:
- A black mark at the site of the bite, around 2 to 5mm in diameter, known as an eschar
- Swelling around the eschar
- A severe headache
- A general feeling of ill health
- Swollen lymph nodes near the bite area
Symptoms usually develop around 5–7 days after being bitten and if you do have any of these symptoms then seek out medical assistance. Generally, tick bite fever can be effectively treated with antibiotics.
There is also a risk of Crimean Congo Haemorrhagic Fever (CCHF) after being bitten by a tick in Southern Africa, but this is thankfully very, very much rarer than tick bite fever. It is a very serious viral illness and if you suspect that you may have contracted it, seek medical assistance straight away. Symptoms include sudden fever, muscle aches, dizziness, neck pain and stiffness, backache, headache, sore eyes and sensitivity to light, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal pain, sore throat and mood swings and agitation.
Bed bug bites are red, itchy bumps generally found in clusters or lines. If you have a run in with these irritating little pests in hotels, B&Bs or hostels while traveling, then wash clothes, towels and bedding at as high a temperature as you can. If you find them lurking at home, it’s time to call out professional pest controllers to send them packing.
Bee and Wasp Stings
These can be painful and you will probably be immediately aware of the cause of these red bumps. Fortunately most people suffer no major symptoms beyond some pain and mild inflammation which can be managed with over the counter pain killers if necessary. Check to see if the stinger has been left behind and remove it with tweezers if it is still there.
The exception to this is if the person who has been stung has an allergy to bee or wasp stings. In the case of an allergy, there is a risk of severe reaction and anaphylaxis. Seek medical assistance urgently and if they have been prescribed an injection such as an EpiPen or similar, this should be administered as instructed.