Family Health

Right in the Stinger: How to Avoid, Identify, and Treat Insect Bites and Stings

Warm weather brings us into contact with many insects, inside and outside, and this leads to a higher likelihood of bites and stings. Our bad reactions to bugs range from merely unpleasant to occasionally fatal, so it's important to know how to avoid, identify, and treat the most common insect-derived problems.

Basic Avoidance Tactics

The best way to fend off pests that fly and bite is to avoid them. Of course, screens and netting work wonders, but that's not always an option. Here are some other ideas to try:

  • Don't wear bright colors.
  • Keep away from strong, sweet smells.
  • Garbage cans and standing water are insect magnets; avoid them!
  • Cover yourself. Tuck pants into socks and wear a floppy hat.

Insect Repellent

Reaching for a bottle of bug spray is a common strategy, but check for a sticker of approval by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) before purchasing. There's also a debate concerning a chemical, known as DEET, that's often used in bug spray. The EPA has determined that it poses no threat if used safely, but make sure you take child safety into account: Don't use it on babies under two months old, and try to avoid repellent containing more than 10 percent DEET.


The first action you want to take is identifying which insect is the biting or stinging culprit, but it can sometimes be tough to tell between bites and stings. Luckily, the American Academy of Pediatrics offers a handy identification guide. A key determination factor is location, both on the body and where the issue arises (in bed, in the woods, near a hive, near water, etc.).

Let's take at look at treatment options for individual insects:

  • Bee stings. Don't yank out the stinger; instead, use a thin plastic object (such as the edge of a credit card) to gently push the stinger from side to side until it loosens. Next, wash the area with soap and water, and use ice or a cold pack to reduce swelling. Some people have allergic reactions to bee stings, so watch out for the signs: shortness of breath, chest pain, a rapidly spreading rash, or feeling faint. Call 911 immediately if you or someone near you has this kind of reaction. Extensive stings to the face, particularly the mouth and throat, also require speedy medical assistance.
  • Tick bites. Ticks aren't necessarily dangerous on their own, but they can transmit Lyme disease, so they should be removed immediately. Use tweezers to grasp the tick close to the head and pull, then seal the tick in a container and throw it away. Contact a doctor if a tick has been attached for more than 36 hours. Signs of Lyme disease include a red, round rash and headaches, fever, chills, or severe muscle pain.
  • Mosquito bites. Many humans are allergic to mosquito saliva, which is why these bites itch so badly. Because it's an allergic reaction, antihistamines and other anti-allergy medications can be very helpful. Topical or lotion-based Benadryl and/or cortisol are inexpensive, easy to carry, and often provide immediate relief. Scratching increases the amount of inflammation in the area and should be avoided.
  • Bedbugs. Like mosquitoes, some people are more allergic to these bites than others, so use antihistamines and creams to soothe affected areas. Be sure to do a thorough cleaning, which often consists of insecticidal spraying of the floors, walls, and furniture.

Whether bug bites are a serious problem or merely an annoyance, prevention, proper identification, and prompt treatment help you and those around you. If you experience a serious reaction to a bug bite, get in a touch with a doctor to decide on the best avoidance and treatment plan.

Posted in Family Health

Dr. Sheyna Gifford has been involved in research since 1997, in health care since 2003, in biotechnology since 2005, and in professional science and health communications since 2013. She holds bachelors degrees in neuroscience and English, masters degree in biotechnology and science journalism, and a doctorate in medicine. Sheyna is working on an MBA in healthcare management, and aiming for a career in health policy and health care administration, where excellent communication can lead to better patient outcomes, reduced cost, and better doctor and patient satisfaction.

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*This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute health care advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor or physician before making health care decisions.