|Insect Bites and Stings
|Also Listed As:
|| Bites and Stings, Insect;
Stings and Bites, Insect
Insect bites or stings can be from a host of agents including bees, spiders,
fleas, hornets, wasps, and mosquitoes. Some cause itching; others cause pain.
And if you are allergic, a reaction can be very severe including anaphylaxis
- a response that leads to shortness of breath and
tightening of your throat. This is a medical emergency and 911 should be called.
Another common allergic reaction is called angioedema which involves swelling
throughout your body, especially the face, lips, and around your eyes. More
people have allergic reactions to stinging insects than to biting
|Signs and Symptoms|
- Red, swollen, warm lump
- Itching, tenderness, pain
- Sores from scratching; can become infected
- Serious allergic reactions when symptoms spread (this is called
anaphylaxis). These can include difficulty breathing, dizziness, nausea,
diarrhea, fever, muscle spasms, or loss of consciousness. Call for emergency
medical help right away.
Stinging insects include bumblebees, yellow jackets, hornets, wasps, and fire
and harvester ants. Biting insects include conenose bugs, mosquitoes,
horseflies, deerflies, spiders, bedbugs, and black flies.
- Try not to provoke insects. For example, avoid rapid, jerky movements
around insect hives or nests.
- Avoid perfumes and floral-patterned or dark clothing.
- Use appropriate insect repellants and protective clothing. (See more
- Exercise caution when eating outdoors, especially with sweetened
beverages or in areas near garbage cans.
If you know that you have a serious allergy to an insect, carry an emergency
ephinephrine kit. Your doctor can prescribe. Make sure that friends and family
members know how to use the Epi-pen if you have had a reaction in the past. Wear
a medical ID bracelet.
Proper clothing is very important for avoiding insect bites or stings. The
following tips may help you remember some important practices:
- Don't forget to cover your head. Using a full brimmed hat will help
shield your neck as well.
- Tuck pant cuffs into socks. This helps protect your ankles
- a common spot for bites or stings.
- Check your clothes periodically for bugs.
- Use protective netting when sleeping outdoors. Such equipment is
available for outdoor eating activities as well.
Applying insect repellent to clothing can help avoid skin irritation. When in
an area infested with mosquitoes, sand flies, or ticks, use chemical insect
repellent such as DEET. (Lower concentrations of DEET should be used in pregnant
women and small children.) Avoid use of insect repellent on sunburned skin. When
applying both sunscreen and bug repellent, apply the sunscreen first. Wait 30
minutes before applying the bug repellent.
DO NOT use bug repellent on children's hands because of the chance they may
rub their eyes or put their hands in their mouths. NEVER inhale or ingest insect
In most cases, bites and stings can be easily treated at home, except in the
case of a severe allergic reaction like anaphylaxis, which can be fatal if not
treated IMMEDIATELY. If such an emergency occurs:
- Check the person's airway, breathing, and pulse. If necessary begin
rescue breathing and CPR and call 911.
- Use the person's Epinepherine pen or other emergency kit if they have
one. (Anyone who has had a serious allergic reaction to an insect sting should
carry an Epi-pen or its equivalent at all times.)
- Try to keep the person calm.
- Remove nearby rings and other constrictinng items in case of swelling.
- Stay with the person until medical help arrives.
For non-emergency bites or stings, see
Local reactions of redness, minor swelling, pain or itching at the site of
the bite generally go away in three to seven days with no treatment, even if the
effected area is large. To relieve your symptoms, follow these
- Remove the stinger if it is still present by scraping the back of a
knife or other straight-edged object across the stinger. DO NOT use tweezers.
These may squeeze the venom sac and increase the amount of venom released. This
would worsen the local swelling and pain.
- Wash thoroughly with soap and water to avoid infection. Watch for
signs of infection over the next several days like increased redness or red
streaking along your skin.
- Place an ice pack, wet compress, or ice wrapped in a cloth on the site
for 10 minutes two times (that is, 10 minutes on, 10 minutes off, and then 10
minutes on again) to reduce swelling.
- Take an antihistamine or apply a cream that reduces itching (like
Calamine or Benadryl ointment) if you can't control the temptation to scratch.
- Antihistamines may be recommended for itching and swelling.
- Antibiotics may be prescribed by your health care provider if
infection is present.
- If the reaction is serious enough that a hospital visit is warranted,
anithistamines may be given intravenously and epinepherine (adrenaline) may be
|Nutrition and Dietary Supplements|
Incorporating certain nutrients into your diet, through foods or supplements,
may in theory reduce inflammation or an allergic reaction from insect bites or
stings. These nutrients would need to be part of your diet on an ongoing basis.
Then, when exposed to an insect bite or sting, your reaction may be less
intense. Talk to your doctor before taking nutritional supplements to make sure
that it is safe for you and that the particular substance will not interact with
any medications that you regularly take. Examples of such nutrients include:
Bromelain (Ananas comosus, an enzyme derived from
pineapple)—topical use recommended by some clinicians
to help reduce swelling from insect bites or stings; turmeric (Curcuma
longa) may enhance the effects of bromelain.
Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids
Omega-3 essential fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties that may help
protect against the extreme reaction of anaphylaxis and other allergic
responses. There was a lower death rate from anaphylactic shock in animals on a
high omega-3 fatty acid diet compared to those on a high omega-6 diet. How this
translates to people is not known at this time.
Quercetin & Other Flavonoids
Naturopathic doctors often recommend that people with known allergies take
quercetin (a naturally occurring flavonoid) before being exposed to the
offending agent (like a particular insect). This should lessen the severity of
the allergic response. If you have a history of an allergy to bees, wasps, or
other insects, you might want to consider taking quercetin supplements or eating
foods high in flavonoids (such as fruits and vegetables) on a regular basis.
Animal studies appear to support this traditional use of quercetin. If you are
sensitive to citrus or take calcium-channel blockers to treat high blood
pressure, you should avoid citrus-based forms of flavonoids. Vitamin C may
enhance the effects of quercetin.
The use of herbs is a time-honored approach to strengthening the body and
treating disease. Herbs, however, contain active substances that can trigger
side effects and interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For
these reasons, herbs should be taken with care and ONLY under the supervision of
a practitioner knowledgeable in the field of herbal medicine. Also, BE SURE to
talk to your doctor about any herbs that you are considering.
Some herbs that have been used topically by naturopaths or other herbal
specialists to reduce symptoms from insect bites or stings
- Arnica (Arnica montana), a remedy commonly used in
homeopathic doses, has been used as a topical herb for inflammation from insect
bites. Talk to an herbal specialist about how to safely do so.
- Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
- traditional treatment for relief of insect bites
- Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica ; Urtica urens) -
Applying juice from the stinging nettle to the skin may relieve pain from insect
- Turmeric (Curcuma longa) - strengthens the effects of
bromelain. The oil of turmeric may also work as a natural bug repellent in
combination with citronella and other essential oils. Talk to a naturopath or
other qualified, trained herbal specialist about how to use essential oils as
bug repellants. Eucalyptus, lavender, lemongrass, pennyroyal, and hairy basil
are amongst the additional oils, along with extracts of vanilla bean, that such
a professional might consider and teach you to appropriately make and use.
There have been few studies examining the effectiveness of specific
homeopathic remedies. A professional homeopath, however, may recommend one or
more of the following treatments for insect bites and stings based on his or her
knowledge and clinical experience. Before prescribing a remedy, homeopaths take
into account a person's constitutional type. In homeopathic terms, a person's
constitution is his or her physical, emotional, and intellectual makeup. An
experienced homeopath assesses all of these factors when determining the most
appropriate remedy for a particular individual and might select from amongst the
following treatments for an insect bite or sting:
- Apis mellifica— for stinging pains
with rapid swelling and affected area that is warm to the touch; this remedy is
most appropriate for individuals who feel better with cold applications;
Apis is recommended if hives are present or if Ledum does not
reduce pain or swelling after 4 hours
- Hypericum — for bites accompanied by
sharp, shooting pains that often occur in sensitive areas, such as at the ends
of fingers or toes
- Ledum— most commonly used homeopathic
agent for bites and stings from bees, mosquitoes, wasps, or spiders; affected
area is cold to the touch but cold applications or immersion in cold water
- Staphysagria— for children with large,
itchy mosquito bites that may create large welts
- Urtica urens— for red, swollen bites
with itching and stinging; may be used instead of Apis to treat hives
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|Review Date: April 2004|
|Reviewed By: Participants in the review process include: Shiva Barton, ND, Wellspace,
Cambridge, MA; Jacqueline A. Hart, M.D., Department of Internal Medicine,
Newton-Wellesley Hospital, Newton, Ma., and Senior Medical Editor, A.D.A.M.,
Inc.; Leonard Wisneski, MD, FACP, George Washington University, Rockville, MD;
Terry Yochum, DC, Rocky Mountain Chiropractic Center, Arvada,
Copyright © 2004 A.D.A.M., Inc
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