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Bites and Stings: Insects

No matter how careful you are about animals in your home, or how much care you take when you are outdoors, animal and insect bites and stings are sometimes unavoidable.

Flea, mite, or chigger bites

Fleas, mites, and chiggers often bite humans. But they are not poisonous. It is sometimes hard to know which type of insect caused the bite, or if the rash is caused by poison ivy or other skin conditions.

What are the symptoms of a flea, mite, or chigger bite?

Symptoms may include:

  • Small bumps on the skin

  • Pain or itching

  • Dermatitis (inflammation of the skin)

  • Allergy-like reactions such as swelling or blistering

The symptoms of a flea, mite, or chigger bite may be like other health conditions. Talk with your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

Treatment for flea, mite or chigger bites

Your healthcare provider will talk with you about treatment. Treatment may include:

  • Cleaning the area well with soap and water.

  • Using an antihistamine to help reduce itching, if needed

  • Applying cool compresses and avoiding heat to help with itching and possible inflammation

  • Taking acetaminophen for discomfort if needed

When should I call my healthcare provider?

Call your healthcare provider if you have any of these:

  • Pain or itching that doesn't stop

  • Signs of infection, such as increased redness, warmth, swelling, or fluid leaking

  • Fever

Call 911 or your local emergency medical service (EMS) if the person has signs of a severe allergic reaction such as:

  • Trouble breathing

  • Tightness in the throat or chest

  • Feeling faint

  • Dizziness

  • Hives

  • Nausea and vomiting

Tick bites

Ticks are small insects that live in grass, bushes, wooded areas, and along seashores. They attach their bodies onto a human or animal host. They prefer hairy areas such as the scalp, behind the ear, in the armpit and groin. They can also attach between fingers and toes. Tick bites often happen at night. And they happen more in the spring and summer months.

What to do if you find a tick on your skin

To remove a tick: 

  • Do not touch the tick with your bare hand. If you do not have a pair of tweezers, go to your nearest healthcare facility where the tick can be removed safely.

  • Use a pair of tweezers to remove the tick. Grab the tick firmly by its mouth or head as close to your skin as possible.

  • Pull up slowly and steadily without twisting until it lets go. Do not squeeze the tick, and do not use petroleum jelly, solvents, knives, or a lit match to kill the tick.

  • Save the tick and place it in a plastic container or bag so it can be tested for disease, if necessary.

  • Wash the area of the bite well with soap and water and apply an antiseptic lotion or cream.

  • Call your healthcare provider to find out about follow-up care.

Facts about insect stings

Bees, wasps, yellow jackets, and hornets belong to a class of insects called Hymenoptera. Most insect stings cause only minor discomfort. Stings can happen anywhere on the body and can be painful. Yellow jackets cause the most allergic reactions in the U.S. Stings from these insects cause many more deaths than poisonous snake bites, because of severe allergic reactions. In fact, bees usually cause more deaths per year than any other animal in the U.S because of allergies. Fire ants are usually found in Southern states. They can sting multiple times, and the sites are more likely to become infected.

The 2 greatest risks from most insect stings are allergic reaction and infection. An infection is more common and less serious. An allergic reaction may cause death if it is severe.

What are the symptoms of an insect sting?

The following are the most common symptoms of insect stings. You may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Local skin reactions at the site or around the sting such as:

    • Pain

    • Swelling

    • Redness

    • Itching

    • Warmth

    • Small amounts of bleeding or drainage

    • Hives

  • Full-body symptoms may mean a more severe and possibly life-threatening allergic reaction. These symptoms may include:

    • Coughing

    • Tickling in the throat

    • Tightness in the throat or chest

    • Breathing problems or wheezing

    • Nausea or vomiting

    • Dizziness or fainting

    • Sweating

    • Anxiety

    • Itching and rash elsewhere on the body, remote from the site of the sting

Treatment for stings

Your healthcare provider will talk with you about treatment. A large local reaction to a sting usually do not lead to a full-body reactions. But it can be life-threatening if the sting happens in the mouth, nose, or throat. This is due to swelling that can close off the airway.

Treatment for local skin reactions only may include:

  • Remove the stinger by gently scraping across the site with a blunt-edged object, such as a credit card or dull knife. Do not try to pull it out. This may release more venom.

  • Wash the area well with soap and water.

  • Apply a cold or ice pack wrapped in a cloth to help reduce swelling and pain. Use this for 10 minutes on and 10 minutes off for 30 to 60 minutes.

  • If the sting happens on an arm or leg, elevate the limb to help reduce swelling.

  • To help reduce the itching, try 1 or more of these remedies:

    • Apply a paste of baking soda and water and leave it on for 15 to 20 minutes.

    • Apply a paste of unseasoned meat tenderizer and water and leave it on for 15 to 20 minutes.

    • Apply a wet tea bag and leave it on for 15 to 20 minutes.

    • Use an over-the-counter product made to use on insect stings.

    • Apply an antihistamine or corticosteroid cream or calamine lotion.

    • Give acetaminophen for pain.

    • Give an over-the-counter antihistamine, if approved by your healthcare provider. Be sure to follow dosage instructions carefully.

    • Watch closely for the next hour for any signs of allergic reaction that would need emergency medical treatment.

Call 911 or your local emergency medical service (EMS) and seek emergency care right away if the person is stung in the mouth, nose, or throat area, or for any signs of a full-body reaction.

Emergency medical treatment may include:

  • IV (intravenous) antihistamines

  • Epinephrine auto-injector pen

  • Corticosteroids or other medicines

  • Blood tests

  • Breathing support

Preventing insect stings

To help reduce the possibility of insect stings while outdoors include:

  • Don't wear perfumes, hairsprays, or other scented products.

  • Don't wear brightly colored clothing.

  • Don't walk outside barefoot.

  • Spray your clothing with insect repellent.

  • Make sure you avoid hives and nests. Have the nests removed by professionals.

  • If an insect comes near you, stay calm and walk away slowly.

If you have a known or possible allergy to stings:

  • Carry a bee sting kit (such as an EpiPen) at all times and make sure you know how to use it. These products are available by prescription.

  • Wear long-sleeve shirts and long pants when outdoors.

  • See an allergist for allergy testing and treatment.

Online Medical Reviewer: Daphne Pierce-Smith RN MSN CCRC
Online Medical Reviewer: Donna Freeborn PhD CNM FNP
Online Medical Reviewer: Eric Perez MD
Date Last Reviewed: 1/1/2019
© 2000-2019 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.