Insect Bites and Stings
Insect bites and stings cause skin reactions. They can include itching, rashes, and sometimes swelling. Most bites and stings can be safely treated at home. Those that cause allergic reactions may require prompt medical attention. If you think that you are having a severe allergic reaction, seek medical help immediately.
Insect bites and stings are caused by:
- Biting insects (eg, mosquitoes, fleas, ticks, and spiders)
- Stinging insects (eg, bees, yellow jackets, hornets, wasps, and fire ants)
The following factors increase your chances of being bitten or stung by an insect:
- Performing work or spending time outdoors
- Living in warmer climates
- Lacking proper protection
- Forgetting to use flea and tick preventive measures for pets
- Collecting insects as a hobby
If you experience any of these symptoms do not assume it is only because of an insect bite. These symptoms may be caused by other health conditions. If you experience any one of them, see your physician.
The most common symptoms of insect bites and stings include:
- Mild swelling around the affected area
- Redness around the affected area
- Pain around the affected area
- Heat around the affected area
- Itching around the affected area
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If you experience a severe allergic reaction, get medical help immediately. Symptoms of a severe allergic reaction include:
- Shortness of breath
- Swelling, redness, or hives covering most of your body
- A feeling that your throat is closing up
- Nausea or vomiting
- Chills, muscle aches, or cramps
- Abdominal pain
- Headache sweating
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.
If the insect bite requires medical attention, your doctor will evaluate your symptoms. The doctor will determine if you are having an allergic reaction or other medical problem caused by the bite or sting. You will be asked about the type of insect that bit or stung you. If possible, try to obtain a sample of the insect responsible for the bite or sting.
If you were bitten by a spider and were able to safely kill it, take the spider to the doctor with you. Some spider bites may require blood tests such as:
- Complete blood count
- Creatine kinase
Most insect bites and stings can be safely treated at home. If this is the case, take the following steps:
- If there is a stinger, carefully remove it. This can be done by scraping it with a sharp edge, such as a credit card.
- If you find a tick, carefully remove it from the head as soon as possible. Tweezers are often effective in doing this. Be careful to gently tug on the tick. Rock it back and forth until the jaws release.
- Wash the affected area thoroughly with soap and water.
- Place an ice pack or cold compress on the affected area for 15 minutes every few hours.
If necessary, to alleviate itching:
- Use calamine lotion
- Topical steroid cream (eg, hydrocortisone )
- If necessary, to reduce swelling and pain take pain relievers such as:
If you were bitten by a brown recluse or black widow spider, or are unsure and you feel sick, get medical treatment quickly. Treatment may include:
- Stabilization of symptoms you may have
- Medications to reduce pain
- Antivenin to rapidly relieve symptoms
If you or someone you know is having a severe allergic reaction, seek medical help immediately. Once you arrive at the hospital, treatment may include:
- Emergency treatment to stabilize life-threatening symptoms
- Medications ( eg, epinephrine, antihistamines, and/or corticosteroids)
- Intravenous fluids
- Oxygen venom immunotherapy—administering increasing doses of venom to stimulate your immune system to reduce the risk of a future allergic reaction
If you are diagnosed with an insect bite of sting, follow your doctor's instructions.
To help reduce your chances of getting an insect bite or sting, take the following steps:
- Use insect repellents. These work against biting insects such as mosquitoes.
- Use caution around areas where insects nest. Areas include walls, bushes, trees, and open garbage cans.
- Reduce the amount of skin exposed when you are outdoors.
- Regularly treat your home for fleas during warmer months.
- Treat fire ant mounds with insecticides.
- Never swat at a flying insect.
- Keep foods covered as much as possible when eating outdoors.
- Cover outdoor garbage cans with tight-fitting lids.
- Avoid sweet-smelling perfumes, deodorants, lotions, hair sprays, and colognes.
- Avoid wearing bright colors.
- Wear gloves when gardening.
- Stay away from areas where mosquitoes breed, such as areas around still water.
- Stay inside at dawn and dusk, when mosquitoes are most active.
- Do not disturb bee or wasp nests.
- Be cautious in areas where spiders might be hiding. Areas include undisturbed piles of wood, seldom-opened containers, or corners behind furniture.
- Use flea and tick control for pets.
American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
Allergy/Asthma Information Association
Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety
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Insect stings. Medem website. Available at: http://www.medem.com/medlb/article_detaillb.cfm?article_ID=ZZZMO0FIA9C&sub_cat=530 . Accessed October 5, 2006.
Lewis FS, Smith LJ: What’s eating you?Bees, part 1: characteristics, reactions, and management. Cutis . 2007:78:439-44
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Last reviewed January 2009 by
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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