Are you feeling sick?
Search 1000+ Symptoms
Credit by 

Introduction

 

Insect stings

Insect stings

 

Insect bites and stings are common and usually only cause minor irritation. However, some stings can be painful and trigger a serious allergic reaction.

In the UK, insects that bite include midges, mosquitoes, fleas, bedbugs and, although not strictly insects, spiders, mites and ticks, which are arachnids. Insects that sting include bees, wasps and hornets.

An insect bites you by making a hole in your skin to feed. Most insects sting as a defence by injecting venom into your skin.

Symptoms of an insect bite or sting

When an insect bites, it releases saliva that can cause the skin around the bite to become red, swollen and itchy.

The venom from a sting often also causes a swollen, itchy, red mark (a weal) to form on the skin. This can be painful, but it's harmless in most cases. The affected area will usually remain painful and itchy for a few days.

The severity of bites and stings varies depending on the type of insect involved and the sensitivity of the person.

In rare cases, some people can have a serious allergic reaction(anaphylaxis) to a bite or sting that requires immediate medical treatment.

When to seek medical help

See your GP if you've been bitten or stung and there's a lot of swelling and blistering or if there's pus, which indicates an infection.

Dial 999 and ask for an ambulance if you experience any of these symptoms after a bite or sting:

  • wheezing or difficulty breathing

  • nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea

  • a fast heart rate

  • dizziness or feeling faint

  • difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)

  • confusion, anxiety or agitation

Treating insect bites and stings

Most bites and stings are treated by:

  • washing the affected area with soap and water

  • placing a cold compress (a flannel or cloth soaked in cold water) over the area to reduce swelling

Try not to scratch the affected area to avoid infection. If you're in pain or the area is swollen, take painkillers such as paracetamol oribuprofen.

If you have a more serious reaction, your GP may prescribe other medication or refer you to an allergy clinic for immunotherapy (desensitisation).

Preventing insect bites and stings

You're more likely to be bitten or stung if you work outdoors or regularly take part in outdoor activities, such as camping or hiking.

Using insect repellent and keeping your skin covered when outdoors will help you avoid being bitten or stung.

Try not to panic if you encounter wasps, hornets or bees, and back away slowly. Don't wave your arms around or swat at them.

Travelling abroad

There's a risk of catching diseases such as malaria from insect bites in certain parts of the world, such as:

  • Africa

  • Asia

  • South America

It's therefore important to be aware of any risks before travelling to these areas, and to get any necessary medication or vaccinations.Back away slowly if you encounter wasps, hornets or bees, and don't wave your arms around or try to swat them 

UK insects that bite or sting

Get the lowdown on our most pesky creatures, such as wasps, bees, spiders, ladybirds, midges and mosquitoes

 

 

 

Symptoms of insect bites and stings 

An insect bite or sting often causes a small lump to develop, which is usually very itchy.

A small hole, or the sting itself, may also be visible. The lump may have an inflamed (red and swollen) area around it that may be filled with fluid. This is called a weal.

Insect bites and stings usually clear up within several hours and can be safely treated at home. 

Insect bites

The symptoms that can occur from different types of insect bites are described below.

Midges, mosquitoes and gnats

Bites from midges, mosquitoes and gnats often cause small papules (lumps) to form on your skin that are usually very itchy. If you're particularly sensitive to insect bites, you may develop:

  • bullae – fluid-filled blisters

  • weals – circular, fluid-filled areas surrounding the bite

Mosquito bites in certain areas of tropical countries can cause malaria.

Fleas

Flea bites can be grouped in lines or clusters. If you're particularly sensitive to flea bites, they can lead to a condition called papular urticaria, where a number of itchy red lumps form. Bullae may also develop.

Fleas from cats and dogs can often bite below the knee, commonly around the ankles. You may also get flea bites on your forearms if you've been stroking or holding your pet.

Horseflies

A bite from a horsefly can be very painful. As well as the formation of a weal around the bite, you may also experience:

  • urticaria – a rash of weals (also called hives, welts or nettle rash)

  • dizziness

  • weakness

  • wheezing

  • angio-oedema – itchy, pale pink or red swellings that often occur around the eyes and lips for short periods of time

Horseflies cut the skin when they bite, rather than piercing it, so horsefly bites can take a long time to heal and can cause an infection.

Bedbugs

Bites from bedbugs aren't usually painful, and if you've not been bitten by bedbugs before, you may not have any symptoms.

If you have been bitten before, you may develop intensely irritating weals or lumps.

Bedbug bites often occur on your:

  • face

  • neck

  • hands

  • arms

The Blandford fly

The Blandford fly (sometimes called blackfly) is usually found near rivers. It's common in:

  • Dorset

  • East Anglia

  • Oxfordshire

  • Herefordshire

However, there have also been reports of Blandford fly bites occurring in other areas of England.

You're most at risk of being bitten by a Blandford fly in May and June. Bites often occur on the legs and are very painful.

They can produce a severe localised reaction (a reaction confined to the area of the bite) with symptoms such as:

  • swelling

  • blistering

  • a high temperature of 38C (100.4F) or over

  • joint pain

Arachnid bites

Ticks

Tick bites aren't usually painful and sometimes only cause a red lump to develop where you were bitten. However, in some cases they may cause:

  • swelling

  • itchiness

  • blistering

  • bruising

Ticks can carry a bacterial infection called Borrelia burgdorferi, which causes Lyme disease. Lyme disease can be serious if it isn't treated.

Mites

Mites cause very itchy lumps to develop on the skin and can also cause . If the mites are from pets, you may be bitten on your abdomen (tummy) and thighs if your pet has been sitting on your lap. Otherwise, mites will bite any uncovered skin.

Spiders

Spider bites from spiders native to the UK are rare. You're more likely to be bitten by a spider while you're abroad, if you keep non-native spiders as pets, or if you have a job that involves handling goods from overseas.

Spider bites leave small puncture marks on the skin, which can be painful and cause redness and swelling.

In severe cases, a spider bite may cause nausea, vomiting, sweating and dizziness. Very rarely, a spider bite may cause a severe allergic reaction.

Insect stings

Wasps and hornets

A wasp or hornet sting causes a sharp pain in the area that's been stung, which usually lasts just a few seconds.

A swollen red mark will often then form on your skin, which can be itchy and painful.

Bees

A bee sting feels similar to a wasp sting, but the sting and a venomous sac will be left in the wound. You should remove this immediately by scraping it out using something with a hard edge, such as a bank card.

Don't pinch the sting out with your fingers or tweezers because you may spread the venom.

Allergic reaction

Most people won't have severe symptoms after being bitten or stung by an insect, but some people can react badly to them because they've developed antibodies to the venom.

You're more likely to have an allergic reaction if you're stung by an insect. The reaction can be classed as:

  • a minor localised reaction – this is normal and doesn't requireallergy testing, although the affected area will often be painful for a few days

  • a large localised reaction (LLR) – this can cause other symptoms, such as swelling, itching and a rash

  • a systemic reaction (SR) – this often requires immediate medical attention because it can cause a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction (anaphylaxis)

Although insect bites and stings are a common cause of anaphylaxis, it's rare to experience anaphylaxis after an insect sting, and it's rarely fatal.

Large localised reactions and systemic reactions are described in more detail below.

Large localised reaction (LLR)

If you have a large localised reaction (LLR) after being bitten or stung by an insect, a large area around the bite or sting will swell up. The area may measure up to 30cm (12in) across, or your entire arm or leg could swell up.

The swelling will usually last longer than 48 hours, but should start to go down after a few days. This can be painful, but the swelling won't be dangerous unless it affects your airways.

If you're bitten or stung many times by one or more insects, your symptoms will be more severe because a larger amount of venom will have been injected.

You may have an LLR several hours after being bitten or stung. This could include:

  • a rash

  • nausea

  • painful or swollen joints

Systemic reaction (SR)

You're more likely to have a systemic reaction (SR) if you've been bitten or stung before and become sensitised, particularly if it was recently. People who've been sensitised to bee stings are more likely to have an SR than people who are stung by wasps.

Dial 999 immediately to request an ambulance if you've been bitten or stung and have any of the following symptoms:

  • wheezing, hoarseness or difficulty breathing

  • nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea

  • a fast heart rate

  • dizziness or feeling faint

  • difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)

  • a swollen face or mouth

  • confusion, anxiety or agitation

It's rare for an SR to be fatal, particularly in children, although someone with an existing heart or breathing problem is at an increased risk.

 

In certain parts of the world, such as large areas of Africa and Asia, mosquitoes can cause malaria  

Infected bites

Insect bites can sometimes become infected. Symptoms of an infected insect bite may include:

  • pus in or around the bite

  • swollen glands

  • increased pain, swelling and redness in and around the bite

Some bites will be red and swollen, but for other types of bites these symptoms may not be normal and could indicate an infection.

Contact your GP  if you think your bite may have become infected, or if you're concerned about your symptoms.

Treating insect bites and stings 

Most insect bites and stings cause small reactions that are confined to the area of the bite (localised reactions). They can usually be treated at home.

However, see your GP as soon as possible if your symptoms are severe.

Removing a sting

As soon as you've been stung by a bee, remove the sting and venom sac if it's been left in your skin. Do this by scraping it out, either with your fingernails or something with a hard edge, such as a bank card.

When removing the sting, be careful not to spread the venom further under your skin and don't puncture the venom sac.

Don't pinch the sting out with your fingers or a pair of tweezers because you may spread the venom. If a child has been stung, an adult should remove the sting.

Wasps and hornets don't usually leave the sting behind, so they could sting you again. If you've been stung and the wasp or hornet is still in the area, walk away calmly to avoid being stung again.

Basic treatment

Most insect bites and stings cause itching and swelling that usually clears up within several hours.

Minor bites and stings can be treated by:

  • washing the affected area with soap and water

  • placing a cold compress (a flannel or cloth cooled with cold water) over the affected area to reduce swelling

  • not scratching the area as it can become infected (keep children's fingernails short and clean)

See your GP if the redness and itching gets worse or doesn't clear up after a few days.  

Additional treatment

If the bite or sting is painful or swollen, you can also:

  • wrap an ice pack, such as a bag of frozen peas, in a towel and place it on the swelling

  • take painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen (children under 16 years of age shouldn't be given aspirin)

  • use a spray or cream that contains local anaesthetic, antihistamineor mild hydrocortisone (1%) on the affected area to prevent itching and swelling

  • take an antihistamine tablet to help reduce swelling (antihistamine tablets are available on prescription or from pharmacies)

If local swelling is severe, your GP may prescribe a short course of oral corticosteroids, such as prednisolone, to take for three to five days.

If you have an allergic reaction after being bitten or stung, even if it's just a skin rash (hives), your GP may prescribe an adrenaline pen (an auto-injector) and show you how to use it. You'll also be referred to an allergy clinic for further tests and treatment.

Blisters

If you develop blisters after being bitten by an insect, don't burst them because they may become infected.

Blisters don't usually cause pain unless they rupture (burst) and expose the new skin underneath. If possible, use an adhesive bandage (plaster) to protect the blistered area.

Infected bites

See your GP if the bite or sting fills with pus and feels tender to touch, your glands swell up and you feel unwell with flu-like symptoms.

Your GP may prescribe oral antibiotics (medicines to treat infections caused by bacteria). You'll need to take these as instructed, usually two to four times a day for seven days.

Allergic reaction

Dial 999 to request an ambulance if you have swelling or itching anywhere else on your body after being bitten or stung, or if you're wheezing or have difficulty swallowing. You'll need emergency medical treatment.

If you have the symptoms of a systemic reaction (SR), it could lead to anaphylactic shock. Anaphylaxis may need to be treated with an adrenaline injection, antihistamines, oxygen or an intravenous drip directly into a vein.

Allergy clinics

If previous insect bites or stings have caused a large skin reaction, such as redness and swelling more than 10cm (4 inches) in diameter, your GP may refer you to an allergy clinic.

The criteria for referring someone to an allergy clinic may vary depending on what's available in your local area.

Immunotherapy (desensitisation or hyposensitisation) is a possible treatment option if you're allergic to wasp or bee stings.

It involves being injected with small doses of venom every week to alter your body's immune response to venom.

You need to be observed after each injection to make sure you don't have an allergic reaction to the treatment.

Over time, your body becomes used to the venom (desensitised) and you're no longer at risk of anaphylaxis.

When a high enough dose has been reached, the injections are given at four to six-week intervals for a further two to three years.

Your allergist (allergy specialist) will decide how much venom is injected and how long the injections need to continue for. This will depend on your initial allergic reaction and your response to the treatment.

Ticks

If you've been bitten by a tick, remove it as soon as possible to reduce the risk of getting a tick-borne infection, such as Lyme disease (a bacterial infection that causes a pink or red circular rash to develop around the area of the bite). 

It's important that you remove the tick quickly and correctly by:

  • using a pair of fine-tipped tweezers or a tick removal tool (available from pet shops or veterinary surgeries)

  • wearing gloves or using tissue over your fingers to avoid touching the tick

  • grabbing the tick as close to the skin as possible

  • gently but firmly pulling straight up until all of the tick's mouthparts have been removed

  • not twisting or jerking the tick while removing it to avoid the mouthparts breaking off and remaining in the skin

  • washing your hands with soap and water afterwards

Don't use petroleum jelly, alcohol, a lit match or any other method to try to remove a tick. It won't work and could cause infection.

After removing the tick, clean the bite with soap and water or an antiseptic, such as an iodine scrub.

Avoid scratching the bite because it will cause further swelling and increase the risk of infection. Most tick bites will heal within three weeks.

Seek medical attention if you've been unable to remove all of the tick. You should also see your GP if you develop:

  • a pink or red rash

  • a temperature of 38°C (100.4°F) or above

  • other flu-like symptoms, such as a headache or joint pain

  • swollen lymph nodes

You may need antibiotics to prevent Lyme disease.