Insect bites occur when blood-sucking insects pierce the skin to feed. Blood-sucking insects include mosquitoes, midges, gnats and fleas. In defence or when provoked or annoyed, insects such as ants, bees, wasps and hornets can sting by piercing the skin and injecting a venom (poison).Bites and stings usually appear on exposed areas of the body such as the arms, ankles and lower legs. Insect bites usually cause nothing more than a slight pain. However, some people can develop an allergic reaction to the insect's saliva, which can cause itching, swelling and redness. These symptoms usually disappear after a couple of days. Insect stings can be quite painful. The venom can cause an allergic reaction leading to pain, swelling, stiffness and redness. Again, these symptoms usually disappear after a few days.

In extreme cases, a severe allergic reaction to a bite or sting can lead to 'anaphylactic shock'. If someone is suffering from anaphylaxis, symptoms such as swelling of the mouth and throat, difficulty swallowing and breathing, wheezing, changes in heartbeat, a skin rash, a flushed appearance, stomach ache, feeling sick, vomiting, weakness, collapse and unconsciousness can appear within minutes.

Avoiding Insect Bites & Stings

  • Insect repellents are available from all pharmacies in the form of sprays, creams, roll-ons and sticks. Most are applied directly to the skin but some can be used to treat clothing. Ankle and wrist bands are also available. Some suntan lotions also contain insect repellents. Bright colours will attract bees and wasps so wear light colours instead. Many insects breed in marshy areas and pools after dusk. Avoid these areas if possible. Covering up is very important. Wear long-sleeved shirts, long trousers, socks and shoes after dusk. Do not provoke stinging insects. Waving your arms and swatting will only aggravate insects. Avoid wearing hairspray and perfume as they can attract stinging insects. Insects can be attracted to food and drink. When eating outside, clear away food and empty plates and glasses as soon as possible after eating.
  • If you suffer from anaphylaxis, make sure that your friends and relatives know what to do in the case of a severe reaction. Wear an identity bracelet or necklace or carry a card telling people about anaphylaxis. Carry an adrenaline pen with you at all times


After stinging, bees sometimes leave a sac full of venom embedded in the skin. This sac should be removed as quickly as possible. If it is left in the skin, venom can continue to seep into the wound making the sting worse.

  • Clean the affected area with soap and water. Apply a cooling lotion such as calamine to the affected area. Take an antihistamine to relieve any allergic symptoms. They are available in tablet, capsule and liquid form. You should be aware that some antihistamines can cause drowsiness. Apply an antiseptic cream to clean the area and prevent infection. If the bite or sting is painful, take a simple pain relief treatment such as paracetamol. You may apply an ice pack to the affected area to ease the pain. Anyone who has been stung inside the mouth should suck an ice cube and seek medical advice. A mixture of bicarbonate of soda and water can be applied to a bite or sting to relieve discomfort. Do not scratch a bite or sting. Scratching can spread saliva or venom and make a bite or sting worse. Allergies to insect stings can also be treated with desensitisation, which is also known as 'immunotherapy'. It involves a series of sting extract vaccinations and is used only in severe cases. These injections gradually increase the body's resistance to the allergy. A course of desensitisation treatment may take several years to complete. It is not suitable for everyone, especially young children, pregnant women, those who suffer from asthma or many different allergies.
  • Adrenaline, or 'epinephrine' as it is also known, should be given to people suffering from anaphylactic shock

When To See A Doctor

Make an appointment to see your doctor if you have a bite or sting which does not get better after a couple of days, if you have a bite or sting which appears to be infected (producing pus) or if you have been bitten or stung inside your mouth. If anyone around you appears to be suffering from anaphylaxis, call an ambulance immediately. In tropical areas such as Africa, Asia and Latin America, insects can carry diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever and Japanese encephalitis. If you are planning a trip abroad you should find out about the health risks associated with the area you are planning to visit and see a doctor well before your departure to discuss vaccinations and antimalarial medicines.In Britain, in woodland areas, lyme disease can be transmitted by tics. It causes skin reactions, flu-like symptoms and inflammation of the joints. If you develop these symptoms, tell your doctor.

Additional Information

Leaflets about travel health issues, malaria and allergies are also available from this pharmacy.