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Bites and stings (Adult)

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Bites and stings (Adult)


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Insect bites and stings are quite different attacks on our skin. Stings result when an insect is protecting itself when it feels threatened. Other than the initial pain of the attack, the sting can cause varying degrees of allergic reaction. A bite is a deliberate attack by the insect in order to feed from our blood. After the initial bite, the insect injects its saliva into the wound to allow the blood to flow and for the insect to feed. The insect's saliva causes the bite to become red and swollen and to make it itch.
There are many insects that live in the UK that bite or sting to feed or protect themselves. Stingers include wasps, bees, hornets and ants. Biters include mosquitoes, midges, sand flies, horse flies and ticks. It is very rare to catch diseases from insect bites and stings in the UK but it is possible. For example if bitten by a tick when walking in fields where deer have been, you may catch Lyme disease, a serious infection caused by bacteria (Borrelia burgdorferi) spread by ticks. Abroad, in places such as Africa, Asia and South America there are a number of diseases that can be caught through insect bites such as malaria, yellow fever, Dengue fever, and West Nile disease.
When stung by an insect the victim feels immediate pain. The area around the sting will swell, redden almost straight away and, later, may blister and produce an itchy rash.

When bitten, the person may notice a sharp jab, by which time the insect has already injected its saliva. It may take several minutes for the bite to become itchy and swell into a lump or redden. In the case of midges when they attack in swarms there may be several areas where they have successfully attacked. These areas become hot and itchy and can remain so for several days. Some people are particularly sensitive to insect bites and stings and will suffer a severe allergic reaction resulting in dizziness, fainting, breathing difficulties, rash, raised pulse, sickness, or a swollen mouth and face. In very severe cases the victim may even collapse and die. This severe reaction is called anaphylactic shock.


Most bites and stings do not require special treatment. Wash the area and apply an antiseptic cream. If itching persists an application of calamine lotion or an antihistamine cream will help. An antihistamine tablet may also be taken if the reaction is severe. There are also products containing a mild local anaesthetic or steroids to alleviate pain and itching. Ordinary pain killers such as paracetamol may also be taken for pain relief. Do not scratch, as this will make the itch worse and may cause an infection. Do not burst any blisters as these help to protect the skin.

If the person experiences wheezing or difficulty swallowing you should call 999 for an ambulance as they may be having a severe allergic reaction. If the person has collapsed, check to see if they are carrying a Medic Alert bracelet that warns that they may suffer anaphylactic shocks. As a precaution, such people usually carry adrenaline which should be injected immediately.

There are precautions you can take to avoid being bitten or stung by insects. Indoors, if bothered by fleas treat your pets. Spray rooms with an insecticide and vacuum thoroughly. If outdoors, avoid areas such as ponds where mosquitoes, midges and horse flies commonly occur. In the evenings, wear insect repellent on your skin and clothes and cover your skin as much as possible by wearing trousers and tops with long sleeves. Avoid wearing perfumes and after-shave. When travelling abroad, sleep under a mosquito net, close all doors and windows at night and spray rooms with an insecticide or use electric vapour producing mosquito killers.

If you have been walking in fields where deer may have been, inspect your legs and arms closely for ticks; small brown spider-like insects attached to the skin. If present, get hold of the tick with a pair if tweezers and gently lift away from the skin without twisting.
When to consult your pharmacist
Whether you have already been bitten, whether you just want something to keep at home for First Aid, or whether you are planning to travel abroad, speak to your pharmacist about bites and stings. There are a variety of products available. To prevent infection your pharmacist may recommend an antiseptic cream. To reduce itching, pain and swelling there are lotions, creams and sprays containing calamine, antihistamines, hydrocortisone and local anaesthetics, or oral antihistamines and pain killers. If travelling abroad, there are also insect repellents that your pharmacist may recommend and he or she will also be able to advise you about precautions you may need to take to avoid catching malaria and other diseases.
When to consult your doctor
Seek medical advice if a bite starts to swell up or does not go away after about 2 days, or if you develop a rash, experience flu-like symptoms, or have swollen glands, as the bite may be infected.

If you think that you may have been bitten by a tick and you develop a rash around your armpit, groin or thighs or have a flu-like illness, see your doctor as there is a risk that you may have Lyme disease and urgent treatment with an antibiotic will be necessary.

Also talk to your doctor if you have suffered a severe allergic reaction to an insect bite or sting and are worried that it may happen again. Your doctor will prescribe adrenaline in the form of an injection that can be easily administered by yourself or a passer-by.

If planning a holiday abroad, make an appointment to see your doctor several weeks before you are due to travel. If necessary, your doctor will recommend an appropriate course of anti-malarial tablets and vaccines to protect against other diseases.

If you feel unwell or develop a fever when you return from abroad, seek medical advice as you may have caught a disease when you were abroad but the symptoms only appeared after your got back home.
Useful Tips
  • Prevention is better than cure; use a repellent
  • Choose an insect repellent carefully and reapply according to instructions
  • Avoid strong repellents when pregnant
  • If outside in the evenings, cover as much of your body as possible with clothing
  • Spray insect repellent on skin under light clothing
  • Refrain from scratching itchy bites
  • Seek advice regarding anti-malarial treatments and vaccinations before travelling abroad

Reviewed on 11/11/2009