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Insect Bites and Stings and Spider Bites

Insect Bites and Stings and Spider Bites

Topic Overview

Insect and spider bites often cause minor swelling, redness, pain, and itching. These mild reactions are common and may last from a few hours to a few days. Home treatment is often all that is needed to relieve the symptoms of a mild reaction to common stinging or biting insects and spiders.

Some people have more severe reactions to bites or stings. Babies and children may be more affected by bites or stings than adults.

Examples of problems that are more serious include:

  • A severe allergic reaction ( anaphylaxis ). Severe allergic reactions are not common but can be life-threatening and require emergency care. Signs or symptoms may include:
    • Shock , which may occur if the circulatory system cannot get enough blood to the vital organs.
    • Coughing, wheezing, trouble breathing, or feeling of fullness in the mouth or throat.
    • Swelling of the lips, tongue, ears, eyelids, palms of the hands, soles of the feet, and mucous membranes (angioedema).
    • Lightheadedness and confusion .
    • Nausea, diarrhea, and stomach cramps.
    • Raised, red, itchy bumps called hives and reddening of the skin. These symptoms often occur with other symptoms of a severe reaction.
  • A toxic reaction to a single sting or bite. Spiders or insects that may cause this include:
  • A toxic reaction to multiple stings or bites from a bee, wasp, or fire ant.
    • A bee leaves its stinger behind and then dies after stinging. Africanized honeybees, the so-called killer bees , are more aggressive than common honeybees and often attack together in great numbers.
    • Wasps, including hornets and yellow jackets , can sting over and over.
    • A fire ant attaches to a person by biting with its jaws. Then, pivoting its head, it stings from its belly in a circular pattern at multiple sites.
  • A large skin reaction at the site of the bite or sting.
  • A skin infection at the site of the bite or sting.
  • Serum sickness , a reaction to the medicines (antiserum) used to treat a bite or sting. Serum sickness may cause hives and flu-like symptoms about 3 to 21 days after the use of antiserum.
  • A virus infection. Infected mosquitoes can spread the West Nile virus to people, causing an inflammation of the brain ( encephalitis ). For more information, see the topic West Nile Virus.
  • A parasite infection. Infected mosquitoes can spread malaria . For more information, see the topic Malaria.

Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.

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  Allergies: Should I Take Shots for Insect Sting Allergies?

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Home Treatment

Common bites and stings

Most bites and stings will heal on their own without a visit to a doctor. There are several things you can do to relieve pain and itching and prevent infection from a bite or sting.

Insect or spider bites or stings or contact with caterpillars

  • Move away from the stinging or biting insect. Bees will alert other bees, making them more likely to sting.
  • Remain as calm and quiet as possible. Movement increases the spread of venom in the bloodstream.
  • If you have been stung by a bee and the stinger is still in the skin, remove the stinger as quickly as possible.
  • If you have been stung on the arm or leg, lower the limb at the time of the sting to slow the spread of venom. Hours later, if swelling is present, you can elevate the limb to help reduce swelling.
  • After contact with a puss caterpillar , remove broken-off spines by placing cellophane tape or commercial facial peel over the area of the contact and pulling it off.
  • If you have been stung by a scorpion, see a doctor right away. There is a now a medicine (antidote) for scorpion stings.

Relieve pain, itching, and swelling

  • Apply an ice pack to a bite or sting for 15 to 20 minutes once an hour for the first 6 hours. When not using ice, keep a cool, wet cloth on the bite or sting for up to 6 hours. Always keep a cloth between your skin and the ice pack. Do not apply ice for longer than 15 to 20 minutes at a time, and do not fall asleep with the ice on your skin.
  • Elevate the area of the bite or sting to decrease swelling.
  • Try a nonprescription medicine for the relief of itching, redness, and swelling. Be sure to follow the nonprescription medicine precautions.
    • An antihistamine taken by mouth, such as Benadryl or Chlor-Trimeton, may help relieve itching, redness, and swelling. Don't give antihistamines to your child unless you've checked with the doctor first.
    • A spray of local anesthetic containing benzocaine, such as Solarcaine, may help relieve pain. If your skin reacts to the spray, stop using it.
    • Hydrocortisone 1% cream or calamine lotion applied to the skin may help relieve itching and redness. Note: Do not use the cream on children younger than age 2 unless your doctor tells you to. Do not use in the rectal or vaginal area in children younger than age 12 unless your doctor tells you to.
  • After the first 6 hours, if swelling is not present, try applying warmth to the site for comfort.
Medicine you can buy without a prescription
Try a nonprescription medicine to help treat your fever or pain:

Talk to your child's doctor before switching back and forth between doses of acetaminophen and ibuprofen. When you switch between two medicines, there is a chance your child will get too much medicine.

Safety tips
Be sure to follow these safety tips when you use a nonprescription medicine:
  • Carefully read and follow all directions on the medicine bottle and box.
  • Do not take more than the recommended dose.
  • Do not take a medicine if you have had an allergic reaction to it in the past.
  • If you have been told to avoid a medicine, call your doctor before you take it.
  • If you are or could be pregnant, do not take any medicine other than acetaminophen unless your doctor has told you to.
  • Do not give aspirin to anyone younger than age 20 unless your doctor tells you to.
  • Consider a home remedy, such as putting witch hazel or underarm deodorant on the bite. Home remedies haven't been proven scientifically, but usually they won't hurt you if you want to try them.

Prevent a skin infection

  • Wash the area with soap and water.
  • After washing, wipe the area with rubbing alcohol or first-aid antiseptic.
  • Trim fingernails to prevent scratching, which can lead to infection.
  • Do not break any blisters that develop.
  • If a bite becomes irritated, apply an antibiotic ointment, such as bacitracin or polymyxin B sulfate, and cover it with an adhesive bandage. The ointment will keep the bite from sticking to the bandage. Note: Stop using the ointment if the skin under the bandage begins to itch or a rash develops. The ointment may be causing a skin reaction.

For home treatment of lice, scabies, tick bites, bedbugs, or kissing bugs, see the topics Lice, Scabies, Tick Bites, Bedbugs, and Kissing Bugs.

Symptoms to watch for during home treatment

Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:

Prevention

Take the following measures to help prevent bites and stings.

  • Apply insect repellent before going into the woods or other areas where you may come in contact with insects. Use insect repellents according to directions, particularly when applying repellent to children.
  • Apply repellents safely. Some insect repellents can only be safely applied to clothing rather than skin.
    • Use a lower-concentration repellent on children.
    • Do not put repellent on small children's hands, since they often put their hands in their mouths.
    • Wash the insect repellent off with soap and water after returning indoors.
  • Wear light-colored, smooth-finished clothes that cover your body, such as long-sleeved shirts and long pants. Button long sleeves and tuck long pants inside boots. Avoid loose clothes that might entangle a biting or stinging insect. Avoid bright colors. Avoid going barefooted or wearing sandals outdoors. Some outdoor stores may sell clothing treated with a repellant.
  • Avoid wearing perfumed lotions, aftershave, or scented hair products during the warm months.
  • Take positive steps to manage your surroundings.
    • Always close car windows.
    • Do not put your picnic out until you are ready to eat, and repack picnic food as soon as you are finished serving.
    • Avoid flowering plants.
    • If you have a severe allergic reaction ( anaphylaxis ) to insect bites or stings, have someone else mow lawns or clip hedges.
  • Avoid swatting at insects or flailing your arms around them. Instead, retreat slowly and calmly when insects act threatening.

Additional measures include those to:

If you have had a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) to bites or stings in the past:

Preparing For Your Appointment

To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.

You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:

  • What type of insect or spider bit or stung you? Be prepared to describe it.
  • When were you bitten or stung? How many times were you bitten or stung? Where on your body were you bitten or stung?
  • Have you ever had a severe allergic reaction ( anaphylaxis ) to a similar bite or sting?
  • What are your main symptoms?
  • When did your symptoms begin? How have your symptoms developed, progressed, or changed since the bite or sting?
  • What home treatment have you tried for the bite or sting? Did it help?
  • What prescription or nonprescription medicines have your tried on the bite? Did they help?
  • Have you traveled recently?
  • Do you have any health risks?

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
Last Revised October 25, 2012

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

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