Insect stings and bites

What is an insect sting or bite?

Insects can sting or bite your skin, which can cause it to be irritated. It can also cause more serious symptoms and allergic reactions such as anaphylaxis, or spread serious illnesses such as malaria and Lyme disease.

Insect bites and stings are a phenomenon which usually occur more frequently in the summer due to the following reasons:

  • Less clothing is used
  • More time is spent outdoors
  • Many insects are less active in winter and proliferate in the summer
     

Prognosis of insect stings and bites

Stings or bites are not usually dangerous but are uncomfortable. Despite this, there are some cases where they can cause more serious complications for people who are allergic to them. In some areas of the world, they can cause yellow fever, malaria or dengue fever.

Depending on the insect, when biting, they can often leave behind venomous substances which irritate the skin and can cause allergic reactions.

mosquito bite during the summer
Insect stings and bites usually occur during the summer

What are the symptoms of an insect sting or bite allergy?

An insect bite or sting will normally cause a red, swollen lump to appear on the skin. This may be painful or very itchy depending on the insect. Symptoms usually improve reasonably quickly and will usually pass after a few hours or days.

In some cases, people may have a mild allergic reaction, a larger surface area around the sting or bite can become red, swollen and painful. This usually passes within a week.

In rarer cases, a severe allergic reaction may occur which can cause symptoms such as a swollen face or mouth, breathing difficulties or dizziness. In this case, the person would require immediate medical treatment.

Why do insects sting or bite?

  • Insects such as mosquitos, horse flies, mites, ticks, nits and other blood-sucking insects do so for food.
  • To defend themselves, for example in the case of bees, wasps and ants. These can often cause a much more painful sting, which can cause anaphylaxis or in rarer cases, death.
     

How can allergic reactions to insect stings and bites be prevented?

  • Use insect repellent on skin that is exposed – repellents that contain 50% DEET (diethyltoluamide) are the most effective.
  • Avoid using perfume or cosmetics with floral scents or products with strong fragrances. For example, soaps, deodorants and shampoo. These can attract insects.
  • Wear shoes when outdoors.
  • Take precaution when around flowering plants, compost, rubbish, stagnant water and where food is served.

If you’re travelling to a part of the world where there may be an increased risk of a serious illness, you will need to take extra care. You may be advised by a doctor to take antimalarial tablets to help prevent malaria for example.

How to treat insect stings and bites

  • Remove the sting or tick if it’s still in the skin.
  • Avoid scratching, this will reduce the risk of infection.
  • Wash the affected area with soap and water.
  • Elevate the affected area if you can as it can help reduce swelling.
  • Apply an ice pack to any swelling for at least 10 minutes.

Swelling, pain and itchiness can sometimes last a number of days. Asking your pharmacy or a doctor for medicines is a good idea, you may be offered creams for itchiness, antihistamine and painkillers that can be of great help. Traditional home remedies such as bicarbonate of soda or vinegar are not proven to help.

If you’re worried about an insect sting or bite and feel you may have an allergic reaction, it may be a good idea to speak to a specialist in allergy and immunology. In the case where the insect sting or bite occurred whilst in a country where insects are hosts for diseases, it’s advisable to contact an expert in infectious diseases.

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