Summer is here (hopefully, to stay)!
Being bitten or stung by an insect can be an unfortunate consequence of the good weather.
Usually a bite or sting causes no more than a small irritation. However, for some people, being bitten or stung can lead to serious allergic reactions.
The difference between an insect bite and sting
When an insect bites you, it makes a tiny hole in your skin so that it can reach your blood to feed on it.
When you get stung, the insect punctures your skin and injects venom. As well as causing redness, pain and swelling to the area, this venom can cause a more severe allergic reaction in some people.
Complications from an insect bite or sting
Sometimes a bite or sting can lead to complications - such as an allergic reaction or infection.
Insect bites and stings can become infected with bacteria. Instead of clearing up after a few days, the area around it becomes more red and sore, and pus may build up inside. Infected bites or stings may make you feel unwell with flu-like symptoms and swollen glands.
If you’re allergic to an insect’s saliva (for a bite) or the venom (for a sting) you may have a more serious reaction. The allergic reaction is usually around the area of the bite or sting, which may become more itchy or swollen. This is called a local reaction and usually clears up within a week.
Some people develop a severe, whole-body allergic reaction to bites or stings – most commonly bee or wasp stings – called anaphylaxis, or anaphylactic shock. This is a rare but potentially fatal condition.
Symptoms of anaphylaxis can include: itching and swelling all over the body, blocked or runny nose, swelling of the airways, dizziness, rapid pulse, sickness, vomiting and abdominal pains.
Seek immediate medical help if anaphylaxis is suspected.
How to treat insect bites and stings
Insect bites can be painful or itchy, but try not to scratch them as this can make the symptoms worse. Wash the affected area with soap and water and pat your skin dry.
Stings are typically painful and cause swelling of the skin, but aren't usually dangerous unless you're severely allergic to the venom. If you can see the sting, remove it as soon as possible. You can scrape it out with a fingernail or a credit card.
Don't try to grab the sting between your fingers or with tweezers. This can cause the venom sac to squeeze its contents into your skin.
Your pharmacist can recommend creams such as Anthisan® or HC 45® which can help reduce itching. Painkillers such as paracetamol can relieve some of the discomfort.
If the lump spreads beyond the original site, or itchiness is troublesome, antihistamine tablets can relieve the symptoms. Please be aware that certain antihistamines (such as Piriton™) may cause drowsiness. This can be an advantage at night when the itchiness might disturb your sleep. However, it can be dangerous if you need to drive or operate machinery. For this reason it’s often better to ask your pharmacist for a non-sedating antihistamine such as Clarityn™ or Zirtek™.
Always ask your pharmacist for advice and read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine.