Insect bites and stings
Insect bites and stings can cause an immediate skin reaction. The bite from fire ants and the sting from bees, wasps, and hornets are usually painful. Bites caused by mosquitoes, fleas, and mites are more likely to cause itching than pain.
Bedbug bite; Bee sting; Bites - insects, bees, and spiders; Black widow spider bite; Brown recluse bite; Flea bite; Honey bee or hornet sting; Lice bites; Mite bite; Scorpion bite; Spider bite; Wasp sting; Yellow jacket sting
In most cases, bites and stings can be easily treated at home. However, some people have a severe allergic reaction to insect bites and stings. This is a life-threatening allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis, and it requires urgent emergency care. Severe reactions can affect the whole body and may occur very quickly, often within minutes. These severe reactions can be rapidly fatal if untreated. Call 911 if you are with someone who has chest pain, face or mouth swelling, difficulty swallowing, trouble breathing, or goes into shock.
Some spider bites, like those of the black widow or brown recluse, are also serious and can be life-threatening. Most spider bites, however, are harmless. If bitten by an insect or spider, bring it for identification if this can be done quickly and safely.
The nonemergency symptoms vary according to the type of insect and the individual. Most people have localized pain, redness, swelling, or itching. You may also feel burning, numbness, or tingling.
For emergencies (severe reactions):
General steps for most bites and stings:
- Do NOT apply a tourniquet.
- Do NOT give the person stimulants, aspirin, or other pain medication unless prescribed by the doctor.
Call immediately for emergency medical assistance if
Call 911 if the person is having a severe reaction:
- Trouble breathing, wheezing, shortness of breath
- Swelling anywhere on the face or in the mouth
- Throat tightness or difficulty swallowing
- Feeling weak
- Turning blue
- Avoid provoking insects whenever possible.
- Avoid rapid, jerky movements around insect hives or nests.
- Avoid perfumes and floral-patterned or dark clothing.
- Use appropriate insect repellants and protective clothing.
- Use caution when eating outdoors, especially with sweetened beverages or in areas around garbage cans, which often attract bees.
- For those who have a serious allergy to insect bites or stings, carry an emergency epinephrine kit (which requires a prescription). Friends and family should be taught how to use it if you have a reaction. Wear a medical ID bracelet.
Schlossberg D. Arthropods and leeches. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap 380.
Fradin MS. Protection from blood-feeding arthropods. In: Auerbach PS, ed. Wilderness Medicine. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2007:chap 41.
Last reviewed 1/13/2010 by Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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