Insect bites and stings may be caused by a variety of bugs. You may or may not know what bit you. A bite or sting may go unnoticed or can cause irritating skin reactions. Most bites and stings can be safely treated at home.
For some people, insect bites or stings can cause severe allergic reactions. These reactions will require prompt medical attention. If you think that you are having a severe allergic reaction, call for emergency medical services 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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Your chance of being bitten or stung by an insect is increased if you:
- Work or spend a lot of time outdoors
- Live in warmer climates
- Fail to use proper protection
- Forget to use flea and tick preventive measures for pets
- Collect insects as a hobby
Most insect bites and stings will cause a reaction in the skin around the bite. The most common symptoms include:
- Mild swelling
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
If you have or suspect a severe allergic reaction, call for emergency medical services right away.
Not all insect bites or stings require medical attention.
If you have had a severe reaction, your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. You will be asked about the type of insect that bit or stung you. If possible, try to obtain a sample of the insect.
Your doctor will use this information to understand what is causing your symptoms and how to treat them.
Most insect bites and stings can be safely treated at home. If you know you already have a tick allergy, do not remove the tick. Instead, seek medical attention. Removing the tick may cause it to inject more allergen-containing saliva.
After a bite or sting:
- Wash the affected area with soap and water.
- Place an ice pack or cold compress on the affected area. Use the ice for about 15 minutes every few hours. Do not place the ice directly on the skins
- Acetaminophen or ibuprofen can be used to reduce pain or swelling.
To help relieve itching use:
- Calamine lotion
- Topical steroid creams such as hydrocortisone
Sometimes the insect or part of the insect may be left behind in the skin. Removing them will help the area heal and avoid further irritation or infection.
- To remove a stinger—Use a sharp edge, such as a credit card. Gently scrape the edge over the site to push the stinger out.
- To remove a tick—Use tweezers to grasp the tick by the head. Pull the tick gently but firmly up and away from the skin. Hold the tick just above the skin until it releases its bite.
Medical help is needed for severe allergic reactions. Once you arrive at the hospital, treatment may include:
- Emergency treatment to stabilize life-threatening symptoms
- Medications to reduce swelling and other allergic reactions
- IV fluids
While outdoors, in areas with insects:
- Use insect repellents. These work against biting insects like mosquitoes.
- Reduce the amount of exposed skin. Wear long sleeve shirts and pants when possible.
- Avoid sweet-smelling perfumes, deodorants, lotions, hair sprays, and colognes.
- Avoid wearing bright colors.
- Wear gloves when gardening.
Avoid areas or times when insects are most active:
- Stay inside at dawn and dusk. Mosquitoes are most active during these times.
- Stay away from areas where mosquitoes breed, such as areas around still water.
- Use caution around areas where insects nest. Areas include walls, bushes, trees, and open garbage cans.
- Be cautious in areas where spiders might be hiding. Areas include undisturbed piles of wood, seldom-opened containers, or corners behind furniture.
- Do not disturb bee or wasp nests.
Control pests around your home:
- Keep foods covered as much as possible when eating outdoors.
- Cover outdoor garbage cans with tight-fitting lids.
- Remove any areas of still water from around your house. This may include turning over lids or pots around your yard that have collected rainwater.
- Use flea and tick control for pets. Regularly treat your home for fleas during warmer months.
- Treat fire ant mounds with insecticides.
American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
Allergy Asthma Information Association
Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety
Anaphylaxis. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T113858/Anaphylaxis. Updated August 22, 2017. Accessed December 7, 2017.
Bug bites and stings. Nemours Kid's Health website. Available at: http://kidshealth.org/en/teens/bug-bites.html. Updated February 2014. Accessed November 11, 2015.
Hymenoptera sting allergy. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T114226/Hymenoptera-sting-allergy. Updated April 6, 2017. Accessed December 7, 2017.
Insect bites and stings. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T181055/Insect-bites-and-stings. Updated April 6, 2017. Accessed December 7, 2017.
11/7/2016 EBSCO DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillancehttp://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T181055/Insect-bites-and-stings: Australian and New Zealand Committee on Resuscitation. ANZCOR Guideline 9.4.3—Envenomation from tick bites and bee, wasp, and ant stings. 2016 Jan. Available at: http://anzcor.org/assets/Guidelines/First-Aid/ANZCOR-Guideline-9-4-3-Ticks-Bites-Stings-Jan16.pdf.
Last reviewed November 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board David L. Horn, MD, FACP Last Updated: 11/11/2015