Insect Sting vs. Insect Bite: What’s the Difference?

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on May 19, 2023
2 min read

A sting happens when an insect injects venom into your skin. The venom travels through the bug’s stinger. 

If you get stung, you’ll feel pain. Your skin may turn red or swell at the site of the sting. In some cases, people who are allergic to the venom can have a life-threatening reaction. Doctors call this anaphylaxis.

Among the most common stinging insects are:

  • Wasps (including hornets and yellow jackets)
  • Bees
  • Fire ants

An insect bite happens when a non-venomous bug pierces your skin and feeds on your blood. This may cause a bump (doctors call them “papules”) to form. The telltale sign is intense itching.

Examples of biting insects include:

  • Mosquitoes
  • Fleas
  • Bedbugs
  • Lice 

Ticks and some spiders also bite, but technically they are arachnids, not insects. Ticks feed on your blood, but spiders do not. Also, some spiders have venom.

You can have an allergic reaction to a bite. And bugs that carry disease pass it on through their bites. This is often the case with ticks (Lyme disease) and mosquitoes (malaria, Zika virus).

Most insect bites cause only minor irritation, with symptoms like swelling at the site of the bite or itching or burning. You might also feel numbness or tingling.

If you’ve been bitten by a venomous spider, you may notice any of the following:

  • Intense pain at the site of the wound
  • Stiffness or joint pain
  • Muscle spasms
  • Abdominal pain, nausea, or vomiting
  • Fever or chills
  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • A wound that spreads or turns into a sore (tissue around the wound might also die)
  • Dizziness
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Convulsions

Insect stings and bites can cause severe allergic reactions. Doctors call this “anaphylaxis.” Rarely, a spider bite can cause an allergic reaction that doctors call “anaphylactic shock.” It can be fatal.

Call 911 if you have any of these symptoms:

  • Rapid swelling of the lips, tongue, throat, or around the eyes
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Wheezing or hoarseness
  • Severe itching, cramping, or numbness
  • Dizziness
  • A reddish rash or hives
  • Stomach cramps
  • Loss of consciousness

If you have any of these things and have epinephrine on hand, don’t hesitate to use it, even if you’re not sure your symptoms are caused by allergies. Using an auto-injector pen as a precaution won’t harm you.