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Insect bites or stings

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 4 minutes read

The majority of insect bites/stings can be managed at home and should heal within 3 - 5 days. They tend to cause a round, red, swollen lump that can be painful (typically with insect stings) or itchy (typically with insect bites). Some insects can bite a number of times, causing multiple lumps across an area of the body. There may be a small allergic reaction to the bite or sting, which will be seen as a wider red/swollen ring around the bites.

The most common stings are from bees and wasps. In a small number of people, an insect sting can cause a serious and dangerous allergic reaction (known to medical professionals as anaphylaxis). The symptoms of this can be feeling dizzy, sick, or faint, and swelling, particularly in the mouth and face resulting in difficulty breathing. If you suspect this is happening, call 911 immediately.

Next steps

Once you have been stung or bitten, we advise you to clean the area with water and then hold something cold onto it for at least 10 minutes (avoid putting ice packs straight onto the skin, it is best to wrap it with a thin material such as a tea towel). If you have any redness or swelling around the bite/sting, then you can take an antihistamine tablet (your local pharmacist can guide you on this if you are unsure). To further help the itching, we recommend applying calamine lotion to the area. You can also take painkillers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen to help with the pain.

For Bee Stings

Some bees can leave their stinger sticking out of the skin, which, if this happens, you will be able to see it, and it's important to remove the stinger as soon as possible while avoiding squeezing it (it's best to scrape it out with your nail or side of a credit card). Wasps do not leave their stinger in the skin of the person.

For Tick bites

Ticks are small brown/black bugs that like to feed on blood. Often you will be able to tell if you are bitten by a tick as they tend to stay attached to your skin after biting. You should remove a tick as soon as you find one by pulling it straight out, holding it as close as you can to your skin, and using your nails or something such as tweezers. Most tick bites are harmless; however, some ticks can carry bacteria that can cause Lyme disease, which can be serious, so it is important to look out for any of the following symptoms and seek medical help via an urgent visit with your doctor if you develop:

  • A rash that looks like a bullseye
  • A fever
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle pain

Healthwords pharmacists' top tips

If your insect bite or sting is localized and over a small area, a topical antihistamine cream applied to the area for a few days may be enough to stop the itching and swelling. If there are several bites or stings, it may be easier to take an antihistamine tablet to calm any reaction. There are many to choose from, such as Benadryl, which contains an older antihistamine ingredient (diphenhydramine). It is particularly good for skin reactions as well as other allergies; however, it does need to be taken several times a day, as it has a shorter duration of action. It is also known to cause drowsiness.

Other antihistamines containing loratadine (Claritin), or cetirizine (Zyrtec) are convenient once-daily tablets that have a longer duration of action. They are less likely to cause drowsiness, especially loratadine.

Using a mild steroid cream containing hydrocortisone, alongside an antihistamine tablet, is usually the best way to quickly bring down swelling and inflammation, and prevent further reactions.

You should not use a steroid cream on the face without speaking to your doctor, and you should not use it on broken or infected skin. If there is any weeping or thick discharge coming from the site of the bite or sting, or hardening of the skin underneath, you should see a doctor as the skin may have become infected.

Pharmacist recommended products

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Am I fit for work?

You may be fit for work depending on the severity of your symptoms.

When should I see my doctor?

You should seek medical attention via an urgent visit with your doctor if:

  • You have been stung multiple times
  • You have been bitten or stung in the face or neck
  • You have a widespread rash
  • You suspect the bite or sting area has become infected (if the area of redness/area that is swollen is increasing in size, it has become painful, or there is any pus)
  • The area of redness is larger than 4 inches
  • You have other symptoms, such as a fever
  • The bite/sting has not improved within 3 days
  • You should call 911 if you have any lip/throat swelling, feel dizzy/faint or sick, and any difficulty breathing or swallowing.

The doctor will ask you about your medical history and examine the bite/sting. They may prescribe an antibiotic course if the area looks infected or may prescribe a steroid cream to help the skin inflammation.

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Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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