Treating bites and stings

Along with sunshine, ice creams and long days by the seaside, summer brings a much less welcome regular – insects! Fortunately, we don’t have malaria-carrying mosquitoes in the UK, but we certainly have our fair share of stinging and biting beasties. Read on to find out how to minimise the misery.

Bites and stings – what’s the difference?

Let’s be clear – they both hurt! But insect stings (caused by poison injected by wasps, bees and hornets as they sting) hurt immediately; you may not notice bites (from midges, gnats, mosquitoes, fleas, bedbugs and ticks) for some time. Reaction to bites is usually because of skin irritation from their saliva.

A sting will usually cause a small area of redness and soreness almost straight away. Read on to find out what to do if you get more than this.

A bite can cause a small, itchy lump about 24 hours after you’re bitten, which fades after a few days. Sometimes you can get a fluid-filled, highly itchy blister for a few hours before the lump appears.

Allergic? Don’t panic!

It’s rare to be allergic to insect bites, but one person in 30 is allergic to the poison in an insect sting. Some people will get swelling and redness (possibly with blisters) just around the area of the skin. Swelling comes up quickly and varies in size – often several inches across. Keeping antihistamine tablets in your purse, and taking one as soon as you’re stung, will help.

Small numbers of people develop more serious reactions, including widespread itchy rash, swelling of the face, tummy cramps, fast heart rate, a light-headed feeling and choking or shortness of breath/wheeziness. This is a medical emergency. If you have had this sort of reaction, talk to your doctor about getting an adrenaline injection to carry with you, and call an ambulance as soon as you’re stung.

How can I help myself?

  • To avoid stings and bites, cover up in the evenings when most insects are out.
  • Avoid perfumes or brightly-coloured clothes, which can attract insects.
  • Use insect repellants if you’re going into an insect-infested zone – especially near standing water.
  • Insects love food and drink as much as you do – beware when eating outdoors!
  • If you’re stung or bitten, antihistamine tablets and cold compresses will ease symptoms.
  • If the sting is in the skin, scrape it out as soon as possible with the edge of a knife or a credit card. Don’t squeeze the skin – this can make matters worse.
  • If a hot, painful swelling comes up a few days after a bite, it may be an infection rather than an allergy – see your GP in case you need antibiotics.

Lyme disease – stay safe

Most insect bites in the UK don’t transmit disease. The exception is tick bites, which can occasionally cause a serious condition called Lyme disease. Ticks usually feed on deer, but can bite humans, usually in spring or early summer. They can be found in any wooded areas where deer live.

To avoid tick bites in areas where they might live:

  • Always cover arms and legs completely.
  • Keep to the middle of the path, avoiding the undergrowth.
  • Avoid unmown grassy areas.
  • Inspect your whole skin regularly for ticks, at least once a day. If you find one, take hold of it as close to the skin as possible (ideally with tweezers but otherwise with fingernails). Gently pull it straight out, trying not to squeeze the body of the tick, then clean the area with disinfectant.
  • Keep a careful eye on the area where you’ve been bitten over the next six weeks. If you develop a rash spreading out from the bite, see your doctor for antibiotics as soon as possible.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Patient Platform Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.