Insect Bites and Stings

What reactions do insect bites normally cause?

For most people, an insect bite or sting may cause a little pain, swelling, redness, or itching. The skin irritation may appear in a few minutes or up to 48 hours after the bite or sting. The site may be painful for several hours.

Mosquitoes, biting flies, bedbugs, and some spiders usually cause mild reactions. If you are allergic to certain insect bites, you may have a more severe reaction.

How are they treated?

If you are stung, remain calm and remove or brush away the insect.

  • Bees

    Bees leave a stinger in your skin, but hornets, wasps, and yellow jackets typically don’t. Remove a stinger within 30 seconds by scraping it off with a fingernail or the edge of a credit card. Don’t squeeze the stinger, or it may release more venom.

  • Ticks

    If you are bitten by a tick, pull the tick off right away using tweezers or your fingers (covered with gloves or a tissue) to grasp it firmly and close to the skin. Don’t squeeze or crush the tick’s body. To prevent an infection, clean the area with a nonprescription antiseptic such as rubbing alcohol, and follow the label directions. Wash your hands after touching the tick.

    Save the tick in case you later become ill. Put the tick in a sealed plastic bag and keep it in the freezer. Identification of the tick may help your provider diagnose and treat your symptoms. If you do not have any symptoms, such as rash, fever, muscle aches or joint pain, after 1 month, you can throw away the tick.

  • Spiders and scorpions

    If you are bitten by a spider or stung by a scorpion, put a cloth-covered ice pack on the area. If the scorpion or spider may be poisonous, go to the emergency room. If it can be done safely, take the spider or scorpion in a plastic bag or jar to the emergency room, so it can be identified.

Mild reactions

If you have a mild reaction to an insect bite or sting:

  • Wash the area that was stung or bitten.
  • Make a paste of 3 teaspoons baking soda and 1 teaspoon water. Put the paste on the area of the bite or sting. This may not help with all insects, such as bees and hornets.
  • Put a cold, moist cloth or a bag of ice covered in a towel on the area 3 to 4 times a day for 15 to 20 minutes. Never put ice directly on your skin. This could cause frostbite.
  • Put hydrocortisone cream or calamine lotion on the area to help lessen itching and swelling. If the bite is still itchy, take an oral antihistamine.
  • If the bite is painful, take nonprescription pain medicine, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen. Read the label and take as directed. Unless recommended by your healthcare provider, you should not take these medicines for more than 10 days.
    • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin, may cause stomach bleeding and other problems. These risks increase with age.
    • Acetaminophen may cause liver damage or other problems. Unless recommended by your provider, don’t take more than 3000 milligrams (mg) in 24 hours. To make sure you don’t take too much, check other medicines you take to see if they also contain acetaminophen. Ask your provider if you need to avoid drinking alcohol while taking this medicine.
  • Rest the bitten area on a pillow higher than your heart as much as possible for the first 1 to 2 days. This can help prevent swelling.

Allergic Reactions

Some people have mild to severe allergic reactions. A mild allergic reaction may cause hives with intense itching and pain around the site and itchy eyes. It may cause blisters in the area of the bite or sting.

Yellow jackets, honeybees, paper wasps, hornets, and fire ants can cause more severe reactions. A severe allergic reaction usually happens within minutes of the bite or sting and it can affect your whole body. The symptoms may include:

  • Severe swelling of the lips, tongue, or throat
  • Trouble breathing
  • Nausea, cramping, diarrhea, or vomiting
  • Hives
  • Dizziness
  • Loss of consciousness

You should carry an ID card or wear a medical ID bracelet or necklace that says you have a severe allergy. Tell your family, friends, and co-workers what they should do if you have a severe allergic reaction.

Your provider may prescribe an emergency kit if you have a severe allergy. It contains a ready-to-use injection of epinephrine. When you have a severe allergic reaction, this medicine can treat symptoms for a short time until you get medical care. You or someone with you can give you the shot and call 911 right away. If you have a severe allergic reaction call 911 right away. Use your emergency kit if you have one.

How can I help prevent insect bites?

Follow these guidelines to help prevent insect bites:

  • Avoid walking barefoot or wearing open-toe shoes when outdoors.
  • Don’t wear clothing that is loose or brightly colored.
  • Avoid wearing perfume or other scented products because they can attract mosquitoes.
  • Don’t disturb beehives or hornet nests. Listen for buzzing before reaching into places such as bushes, woodpiles, or covered patio furniture.
  • Keep food and soft drinks covered, and keep garbage cans tightly covered.
  • Wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants, gloves, and closed-toe shoes if you are working around places where insects are commonly found, such as wood piles, rock piles, and dark corners of outdoor buildings, or if you are hiking or playing near standing water or in areas with dense brush or trees.
  • Use an insect repellent whenever you are outdoors. Don’t use more repellent than recommended in the package directions. Don’t put repellent on open wounds or rashes. When using sprays, don’t spray the repellent directly on your face. Spray the repellent on your hands first and then put it on your face, but not close to your eyes or mouth. Then wash the spray off your hands.
    • Adults should use repellent products with no more than 35% DEET. Children older than 2 months can use repellents with no more than 30% DEET. Follow the directions on the bottle to apply DEET. Wash it off your body when you go back indoors. Some products contain more than 35% DEET. The higher concentrations are no more effective than the lower concentrations, but they may last longer. Read the label carefully before applying.
    • Picaridin may irritate the skin less than DEET and is just as good.
    • Spray clothes with repellents because insects may crawl from clothing to the skin or bite through thin clothing. Products containing permethrin are recommended for use on clothing, shoes, bed nets, and camping gear. Permethrin-treated clothing repels and kills ticks, mosquitoes, and other insects and can keep working after laundering. Permethrin should be reapplied to clothing according to the instructions on the product label. Some commercial products are available pretreated with permethrin. Permethrin does not work as a repellent when it is put on the skin.
    • In some studies, oil of lemon eucalyptus, a plant-based repellent, gave the same protection as repellents with low concentrations of DEET, but it hasn’t been as well tested as DEET. Oil of lemon eucalyptus should not be used on children under age 3.
  • To get rid of bedbugs, call an exterminator to treat your home. Foggers and insect bombs do not work against bedbugs.

It is also important to prevent tetanus infection. The skin broken by an insect bite could get infected with tetanus bacteria. You can prevent this by keeping up to date with tetanus shots. After childhood, you need a tetanus booster shot every 10 years, even if you never have a dirty cut or puncture wound.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-11-07
Last reviewed: 2014-11-07
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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