Insect bites and stings come from a variety of bugs. A bite or sting may go unnoticed or lead to skin reactions. Most bites and stings can be safely treated at home.
For some people, insect bites or stings cause severe allergic reactions. They need medical care right away.
Insect bites and stings are caused by:
- Biting insects—such as mosquitoes, fleas, and ticks
- Stinging insects—such as bees, yellow jackets, hornets, wasps, and fire ants
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The risk of being bitten or stung by an insect is higher in those who:
- Live near wetlands
- Work or live with animals
- Work or spend a lot of time outdoors
- Live in warmer climates
- Fail to use proper protection
- Do not use flea and tick prevention for pets
- Collect insects as a hobby
Most insect bites and stings cause a skin reaction around the bite. The most common ones are:
- Mild swelling
Symptoms of a severe allergic reaction include:
- Problems breathing or wheezing
- Swelling, redness, or hives
- The throat feels like it is closing
- Belly pain, nausea or vomiting
- Headache, muscle aches, or cramps
- Fever, chills, or sweating
For those who seek care, the doctor will ask about symptoms and health history. The bite or sting site will be examined. The doctor will ask about the insect. This will help guide treatment.
Treatment often depends on how severe the reaction is to the sting or bite. Most insect bites or stings can be treated at home. Those with allergic reactions to certain insects need medical care.
Options may be:
- Safe removal of the stinger or tick
- Washing the area—to prevent infection
- Applying cold compresses—to reduce swelling
- Pain medicines, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen —to reduce swelling and pain
- Antihistamines, lotions, and steroid pills or creams—to ease itching
Severe allergic reactions need medical care right away. This may include:
- Emergency treatment for life-threatening symptoms
- Medicines to reduce swelling and other allergic reactions
- IV fluids
The risk of insect bites and stings may be reduced by:
- Avoiding areas where insects are active
- Using insect repellents
- Wearing gloves and protective clothing when working outside
American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
Allergy and Asthma Society of Ontario
Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety
Anaphylaxis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/anaphylaxis Accessed April 1, 2021.
Bug bites and stings. Nemours Kid's Health website. Available at: http://kidshealth.org/en/teens/bug-bites.html. Accessed April 1, 2021.
Hymenoptera sting allergy. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/hymenoptera-sting-allergy-14. Accessed April 1, 2021.
Insect bites and stings. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/insect-bites-and-stings. Accessed April 1, 2021.
Wilcock J, Etherington C, et al. Insect bites. BMJ. 2020 Aug 7;370:m2856.
Last reviewed December 2020 by EBSCO Medical Review Board David L. Horn, MD, FACP Last Updated: 4/1/2021