Aussie woman's 'lethal' reaction after harmless bug bite

An Aussie woman has issued a warning to others after a bug bite left her fearing for her life in hospital.

Julie Davis, who has spent the last 12 months travelling around Australia in a caravan with her husband, spent four days in emergency care this week after waking up on Sunday in severe pain with a very swollen and red right arm.

“It was aching really bad — a hot pain into the bone,” the 63-year-old told Yahoo News Australia. After rushing to a hospital in North Queensland, doctors revealed Ms Davis had developed cellulitis — a potentially fatal bacterial skin infection — stemming from a midge bite two weeks earlier in Mackay.

Julie Davis' red and swollen arm after her midge bite became infected.
Julie Davis was hospitalised for days after a midge bite became infected. Source: Supplied

Midges, otherwise known as sandflies, are a well-known nuisance found near bodies of water across Australia that feed on people’s blood, often leaving an itchy, irritated sore.

Ms Davis said she is often targeted by the annoying insects. “When we were in Airlie Beach my arm was actually black as I was covered in them,” she said.

After first being bitten above her elbow, the 63-year-old said she figured the affected area would swell and become itchy before eventually healing like all of her previous experiences. However, after a few days she noticed the sore had become “a hole” in her arm and appeared to be getting infected.

“On Saturday night I had a sleepover with my granddaughter and she put a bandaid on it for me and it started itching like mad. When I woke up in the morning my elbow was like a golf ball,” she said.

By the time she got the hospital she had developed a fever and her arm was “red and hot”. She spent the next four days in short-stay emergency ward being pumped with antibiotics.

Ms Davis and her swollen red elbow. Source: Supplied
Ms Davis said she is still in pain and undergoing IV antibiotic treatment. Source: Supplied

“I never thought it would go like this. I could see it getting worse. It really frightened the daylights out of me,” Ms Davis said, adding that while in hospital she told her children she “didn’t want to die”.

Despite having a self-proclaimed high pain threshold, she said the cellulitis was unbearable. “It’s still painful now … but had I left it it probably would have been a lot worse,” Ms Davis told Yahoo News Australia after being released from the hospital on Wednesday night.

She is now undergoing IV antibiotic treatment from her caravan, with nurses coming by to check on her every day.

Aussie woman warns others

Following the scary ordeal, Ms Davis posted in a Facebook group dedicated to Aussies who camp around the country to warn them “just how dangerous midge bites can be”. She said she wanted to urge others to be careful and make them aware that sandflies can be “lethal”.

“For a little thing that’s so tiny, it does so much damage to us,” she said. People were quick to agree, with several other travellers sharing their own horror stories.

“I am allergic to them and nearly hospitalised in Broome,” one woman said. “One got me on the arm of all places and it became inflamed then infected. Massive big sore. Turns out it had pieced a blood vessel and has to be excised out. Took about 3 months to heal and I still have the scar. Nasty little critters,” another person said.

Mating pair of biting midges in Baltic amber dating from the Upper Eocene.
Midges, otherwise known as sandflies, are a well-known nuisance found near bodies of water across Australia that feed on people’s blood. Source: AAP

Wet weather leads to more midges

While they can be a “tremendous nuisance”, sandflies don’t carry any pathogens that affect humans, Associate Professor Gregor Devine with the Mosquito Control Laboratory at QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Brisbane told Yahoo News Australia.

“In Australia midges are common around estuarine creeks but there are a few that breed in leaf litter and bushland,” he said. “They seem to have become very common in recent weeks – their proliferation is probably the result of the warming weather as we head into summer, and the generally wet conditions over recent years.”

Mr Devine said that inflammation and cellulitis after insect bites is common, and that a rumour that midges cause pain by urinating on people is untrue.

“Midges actually bite, they have sawing mouth parts, so they leave a small open wound. The itchiness following the bite, caused by an allergic response to the insect’s saliva, makes people scratch and the scratching transfers bacteria to the wound where they can cause subcutaneous infection (the cellulitis),” he explained.

“When a small blood feeding insect like a midge feeds, it has to get rid of excess water or it will explode, so it defecates while feeding. In most biting insects those faeces are not particularly harmful. The sources of infection following insect bites are usually secondary bacteria like streptococcus or staphylococcus that may already be on the skin or under your fingernails when you scratch.”

Bites should be washed with soap and water before being treated with antiseptic, Mr Devine said. Long sleeves and pants, as well as repellent with an active ingredient like DEET or Picaridin can also be helpful.

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