Insect Bites

Photo of hornet - Insect Bites and Stings

Condition or Illness – Insect Bites and Stings

Insect bites and stings can cause an immediate skin reaction. The bite from fire ants and the sting from bees, wasps, and hornets are usually painful. Bites caused by mosquitoes, fleas, and mites are more likely to cause itching than pain.

In most cases, bites and stings can be easily treated at home. However, some people have a severe allergic reaction to insect bites and stings. This is a life-threatening allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis, and it requires urgent emergency care. Severe reactions can affect the whole body and may occur very quickly, often within minutes.

Most spider bites are harmless. If bitten by an insect or spider, bring it for identification if this can be done quickly and safely.

Treatment of Insect Bites and Stings

  1. Remove the stinger if still present by scraping the back of a credit card or other straight-edged object across the stinger. Do not use tweezers — these may squeeze the venom sac and increase the amount of venom released.
  2. Wash the site thoroughly with soap and water.
  3. Place ice (wrapped in a washcloth) on the site of the sting for 10 minutes and then off for 10 minutes. Repeat this process.
  4. If necessary, take an antihistamine, or apply creams that reduce itching.
  5. Over the next several days, watch for signs of infection (such as increasing redness, swelling, or pain).
  6. Do not apply a tourniquet.
  7. Do not give the person stimulants, aspirin, or other pain medication unless prescribed by the doctor.

Signs and Symptoms

The nonemergency symptoms vary according to the type of insect and the individual. Most people have localized pain, redness, swelling, or itching. You may also feel burning, numbness, or tingling.

Exams and Tests

Physical exams include locating the possible site of the bite or sting and observing for redness, heat, or bruising. The medical professional may also examine the wound for remnants of the stinger or mouth.

When to contact a medical professional

Call 911 immediately if the person is having a severe reaction:

  • Trouble breathing, wheezing, shortness of breath
  • Swelling anywhere on the face or in the mouth
  • Throat tightness or difficulty swallowing
  • Feeling weak

Prevention

  • Avoid provoking insects whenever possible.
  • Avoid rapid, jerky movements around insect hives or nests.
  • Avoid perfumes and floral-patterned or dark clothing.
  • Use appropriate insect repellants and protective clothing.
  • Use caution when eating outdoors, especially with sweetened beverages or in areas around garbage cans, which often attract bees.
  • For those who have a serious allergy to insect bites or stings, carry an emergency epinephrine kit (which requires a prescription). Friends and family should be taught how to use it if you have a reaction. Wear a medical ID bracelet.

We would like to thank the National Library of Health's MedLine plus for some of the information contained in this article.

Further Information

For more information regarding this topic and others please visit the National Library of Health's MedLinePlus website.