When Bug Bites Go Beyond Bothersome

Summertime means plenty of opportunities for outdoor leisure, but time spent in the fresh air can become problematic when you add insects to the equation.

When bug bites go beyond the pesky itch, it’s important to know what to look for and when it might be time to call a doctor.

Signs & Symptoms

Is Your Bug Bite Reaction Local or Serious?

The most common reaction to an insect sting is a local reaction, which has symptoms that do not extend beyond the bite site. Symptoms include:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Redness
  • Itching
  • Warmth
  • Hives

Serious symptoms that can indicate the possibility of a life-threatening reaction include the following:

  • Tightness in the throat or chest
  • Breathing problems or wheezing
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Anxiety and/or a racing heart
  • Hives over a large part of the body

Experts recommend seeking immediate emergency treatment for serious symptoms. It’s also important to note that stings can be more serious if they occur in the mouth, nose or throat area, as swelling in these areas can cause breathing difficulties.

Treatment for Bites and Stings

Home care is sufficient for most bites and stings. Tips include:

  • Remove the stinger by gently scraping across the site with a blunt-edged object, such as a credit card, a dull knife or a fingernail. Do not try to pull it out, as this may release more venom.
  • Wash the area well with soap and water.
  • Apply a cold or ice pack wrapped in a thin cloth to help reduce swelling and pain.
  • If the sting occurs on an arm or leg, elevate the area to reduce swelling.
  • To reduce the pain and itching, apply a paste of baking soda and water and leave it on for 15 to 20 minutes. You could also apply a wet tea bag.
  • Apply an antihistamine or corticosteroid cream or calamine lotion.
  • Take acetaminophen for pain.
  • Take an over-the-counter antihistamine, if approved by your health care provider.
  • Always watch the person closely for the next hour for more serious symptoms.

Preventing Bug Bites

To reduce the possibility of insect stings:

  • Avoid using perfumes and other scented items.
  • Avoid brightly colored clothing.
  • Do not go outside barefoot. Avoid wearing sandals in the grass.
  • Use insect repellent.
  • Avoid locations where hives and nests are present. Have the nests removed by professionals.
  • If an insect comes near, stay calm and walk away slowly.

If you need assistance treating a non-emergency bite or sting, doctors are available 24/7 through osfoncall.org.