Insect bites and stings

Treating insect bites

Most insect bites result in small, local reactions where the symptoms can be easily treated. However, if your symptoms are severe, you should visit your GP as soon as possible.

If you have a severe allergic reaction to an insect bite, such as wheezing, or other signs of respiratory distress, you should call 999 immediately for medical assistance.

Small, local reactions

The majority of insect bites cause itching and swelling which usually clears up within several days. Small, local reactions (reactions confined to the area of the bite) can be treated using a cold compress (such as placing a damp flannel over the affected area), and oral painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen.

Anaesthetic, or steroid cream, such as crotamiton cream, can be used to soothe the pain of a bite. Antihistamine tablets can also help.

Do not apply cream or ointment to broken skin and always follow the instructions on the packet. Although the bite may be itchy, avoid scratching it because you may damage the skin and allow bacteria to get in, leading to infection.

Large, local reactions

Large, local reactions can be treated using a short course of an oral antihistamine and oral analgesics. If local swelling is severe, your GP may prescribe a short course of oral steroids.

Generalised urticaria

If after being bitten by an insect, you, or a family member, show signs of urticaria (small, itchy lumps or lesions on or near the bite site) your GP may prescribe an oral antihistamine and an oral corticosteroid, such as prednisolone. If the symptoms worsen, you should seek medical assistance immediately.

Blisters

If you develop blisters after being bitten by an insect, do not burst them as they may become infected. Blisters do not often cause pain unless they rupture, exposing tender skin underneath. If possible, use an adhesive bandage to protect the blistered area.

Allergy clinics

If previous insect bites have caused generalised symptoms other than at the bite site, such as a large skin reaction, with redness and swelling of over 10cms in diameter, your GP may refer you to see a specialist at an allergy clinic. Immunotherapy (desensitisation) is a possible treatment option if you are allergic to insect bites or stings.

Below is some advice relating to specific types of insect bite.

Midges, mosquitoes, and gnats

Most midge, mosquito, or gnat bites do not require treatment and will clear up within 1-2 days. In cases where there is no allergic reaction, a cold compress, such as a cold flannel or ice pack, can be used to ease any pain and inflammation.

Steroid creams, such as hydrocortisone, or antihistamines (cream or tablets) are available over-the-counter at pharmacies, as well as on prescription, and will help to ease any itchiness and inflammation.

If you have severe symptoms, such as swelling and blistering, you should continue to use the above treatment methods, and visit you GP as soon as possible. You may require further treatment, such as a course of steroids.

Fleas, mites, or bedbugs

If bitten by fleas, mites, or bedbugs, you may have an infestation in your home. You should try to find the source of the infestation - for example, a dog or a cat. Once you have identified the cause of the infestation.

If your pet is the source of the flea infestation, you will need to treat it, its bedding, household carpets and soft furnishings with an insecticide. Thoroughly vacuum your carpets and soft furnishings.

In the case of a Cheyletiella mite infestation, you should seek advice from your local veterinary surgeon, as aggressive treatment is required.

If an infestation of bedbugs is confirmed, your home will need to be thoroughly treated with insecticide by a reputable pest control company (contact your local council for details).

You will need to vacuum carpets and upholstery, and wash bed linen and clothing using the hottest possible wash. Children and pets should be removed from the property during the treatment which should take a few hours to complete. Further treatments may be necessary to get rid of the bugs.

Ticks

If bitten by a tick, you should remove it as soon as possible to reduce the risk of getting a tick borne infection, such as Lyme disease (see complications section).

Grab the tick as close to the skin as you can, and gently pull straight up until all parts are removed. Do not twist or jerk the tick as you are removing it, as this may cause the mouthparts to break off and remain in your skin. Using petroleum jelly, alcohol, or a lit match to remove a tick does not work.

Once the tick has been removed, wash your hands with soap and water. Clean the tick bite with soap and water,  apply ice to reduce any swelling and use an antiseptic.

Do not scratch the bite because this will cause further swelling and increase the chance of infection. Most tick bites will heal within three weeks.

See your GP if you develop a rash around your armpit, groin and thighs, or get a flu-like illness after being bitten by a tick. You may need antibiotics to prevent Lyme's disease.

Blandford fly

See your GP if you notice red lines appearing on your skin, or enlarged lymph nodes (swelling) in your armpit or groin. These symptoms can be casued by the Blandford fly.

Last updated: 25 July 2013

Continue to next section: Complications with insect bites