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What to do with an insect bite or sting
Most insect bites and stings don’t cause problems beyond itching, redness and mild swelling. They can be treated easily without seeing a doctor. But some bites and stings are more serious and, in some people, the reaction can be severe. Here’s some information about what to do and when to do it.
How to remove a bee sting
Most people don’t find bee stings too much of a bother, not particularly painful. If you get stung by a bee and the sting and sack of venom are still in your skin, remove them. All you do is scrape the whole thing out with your fingernail or something else with a hard edge. It’s usually really easy. Just take care not to spread the poison further by breaking the venom sac.
If you try to pinch the sting out with your fingers you might make it worse because you spread the venom further. The same goes for tweezers, never a good idea.
About wasp and hornet stings
Unlike bees, wasps and hornets don’t tend to leave the sting behind in your skin. They hang onto it, which means they can sting multiple times. If you’ve been stung, walk calmly away from the insect to avoid it having another go. Don’t panic, flap or run around – you’ll just make them even crosser, more frightened and more likely to sting again.
Treating insect bites and stings
Itching and swelling are common but it usually goes away within a few hours. Some bites itch more in the evening and early morning, but that doesn’t mean they’re getting worse.
Treat minor stings and bites by washing in soap and water to clean the area and, if you need to, put a cool, damp cloth on it to soothe the heat and itching. Don’t scratch the bite, since this can mean infection. If your child gets bitten, cut their fingernails so they can’t scratch the bite.
You can also:
- Use an ice pack to cool it down – cover the pack with a cloth first so you don’t get ice burns
- Take ordinary painkillers like paracetamol or ibuprofen
- Find a cream or spray containing a local anaesthetic, an antihistamine or 1% hydrocortisone to ease itching and swellin
- Take antihistamine tablets to help reduce the swelling, available either on prescription or from your chemist
If the redness and itching gets worse or doesn’t go away in a few days, see your GP. If you get a lot of swelling they might give you a short course of oral corticosteroids. Otherwise, there’s no need to bother a doctor with an ordinary insect bite or sting.
What if you have an allergic reaction?
If you get an allergic reaction, even if it’s only a little skin rash, your GP might give you an adrenaline pen and send you to an allergy clinic for tests. It depends how severe the reaction is. You might get blisters, but don’t burst them – they’re your body’s natural defence mechanism against infection. If they burst on their own, just cover them with a plaster.
What to do with an infected insect bite?
If the area gets all pussy or feels tender to the touch, your glands swell up and you start to feel rotten, with symptoms a lot like flu, you’ve probably picked up an infection. Your doctor might prescribe antibiotics, which treat infections caused by bacteria, but they won’t do it these days unless there’s a very good reason.
A word about antibiotics
Never pressure your GP to prescribe antibiotics. They know best, and they will not want to give you the drugs unless there’s a very good reason. Antibiotic resistance is growing fast and one way to prevent diseases becoming immune to the drugs is to only use them when it’s 100% necessary, when there’s no alternative treatment.
What if you get a strong allergic reaction?
Dial 999 if you get swelling or itching anywhere else on your body or are having trouble breathing. This could lead to anaphylactic shock, which is treated with an adrenaline injection, antihistamines, oxygen or an intravenous drip.
If you always swell up like a balloon or get other nasty symptoms when you’re bitten or stung, your GP might refer you to a special allergy clinic. Or you might be offered immunotherapy, also called desensitisation and hyposensitisation. This involves being injected with tiny doses of the venom once a week until your body gets properly used to it. Once you’re making good progress are aren’t at risk of anaphylaxis any more, the jabs will be given farther apart for another 2-3 years just to be on the safe side.
What about tick bites?
Climate change means we’re seeing more ticks farther north than ever before. If you get bitten you need to remove the insect as soon as possible to avoid tick-borne infections like Lyme disease. Here’s how:
- Use fine tweezers or a special tick removal tool from your local pet shop or vet
- Use gloves so you don’t touch the insect
- Grab the creature as close to your skin as you can
- Pull upwards to get all the tick’s mouthparts out
- Never twist – the mouthparts might break off in your skin
- Never use petroleum jelly, alcohol, a lit match or any other method other than those we recommend. They don’t work and can cause infection
- Clean the bite with simple soap and water or an antiseptic
- Don’t scratch it
- The bite should completely heal within 3 weeks
If you fail to get all the tick’s mouthparts out of your skin, see your GP. The same goes if you develop a rash, get a temperature (100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or more), flu-like symptoms or swollen glands. In a worst case scenario your GP might give you antibiotics to prevent Lyme disease developing.
Why not familiarise yourself with any dangerous insects before you go abroad, especially when it’s somewhere hot or exotic? That way you’ll know what to look out for, what to avoid and which insects are merely ugly yet totally harmless!