Insect Bites and Stings

Overview

Definition

Insect bites and stings come from a variety of bugs. A bite or sting may go unnoticed or lead to skin reactions. Most bites and stings can be safely treated at home.

For some people, insect bites or stings cause severe allergic reactions. They need medical care right away.

Causes

Insect bites and stings are caused by:

  • Biting insects—such as mosquitoes, fleas, and ticks
  • Stinging insects—such as bees, yellow jackets, hornets, wasps, and fire ants
Mosquito Bite
Mosquito bite
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Risk Factors

The risk of being bitten or stung by an insect is higher in those who:

  • Live near wetlands
  • Work or live with animals
  • Work or spend a lot of time outdoors
  • Live in warmer climates
  • Fail to use proper protection
  • Do not use flea and tick prevention for pets
  • Collect insects as a hobby

SymptomsandDiagnosis

Symptoms

Most insect bites and stings cause a skin reaction around the bite. The most common ones are:

  • Mild swelling
  • Redness
  • Pain
  • Heat
  • Itching

Symptoms of a severe allergic reaction include:

  • Problems breathing or wheezing
  • Swelling, redness, or hives
  • The throat feels like it is closing
  • Belly pain, nausea or vomiting
  • Headache, muscle aches, or cramps
  • Weakness
  • Fever, chills, or sweating

Diagnosis

For those who seek care, the doctor will ask about symptoms and health history. The bite or sting site will be examined. The doctor will ask about the insect. This will help guide treatment.

Treatments

Treatment

Treatment often depends on how severe the reaction is to the sting or bite. Most insect bites or stings can be treated at home. Those with allergic reactions to certain insects need medical care.

Options may be:

  • Safe removal of the stinger or tick
  • Washing the area—to prevent infection
  • Applying cold compresses—to reduce swelling
  • Pain medicines, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen —to reduce swelling and pain
  • Antihistamines, lotions, and steroid pills or creams—to ease itching

Medical Attention

Severe allergic reactions need medical care right away. This may include:

Severe allergic reactions need medical care right away. This may include:

  • Emergency treatment for life-threatening symptoms
  • Medicines to reduce swelling and other allergic reactions
  • IV fluids

Prevention

The risk of insect bites and stings may be reduced by:

  • Avoiding areas where insects are active
  • Using insect repellents
  • Wearing gloves and protective clothing when working outside

This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.

Edits to original content made by Denver Health.

RESOURCES

American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology http://acaai.org 

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases https://www.niaid.nih.gov 

CANADIAN RESOURCES

Allergy and Asthma Society of Ontario http://allergyasthma.on.ca/ 

Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety http://www.ccohs.ca 

References

Anaphylaxis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/anaphylaxis Accessed April 1, 2021.

Bug bites and stings. Nemours Kid's Health website. Available at: http://kidshealth.org/en/teens/bug-bites.html. Accessed April 1, 2021.

Hymenoptera sting allergy. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/hymenoptera-sting-allergy-14. Accessed April 1, 2021.

Insect bites and stings. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/insect-bites-and-stings. Accessed April 1, 2021.

Wilcock J, Etherington C, et al. Insect bites. BMJ. 2020 Aug 7;370:m2856.