Stings and bites

What is it? What are the symptoms? What are the treatments?

Stings and bites

Insect bites and stings can cause symptoms ranging from mild to severe. In the UK, bites are mainly caused by mosquitoes, midges, fleas and ticks. Stings are mainly caused by wasps, bees and hornets.

When an insect stings, it releases venom into the wound which causes intense pain.

Most insect bites and stings feel better within a few hours, although tick bites take weeks to heal and can last for months if part of the tick is left in the wound. This is why it's important to remove the whole tick as soon as you can after being bitten.

In some countries, there's a risk of contracting serious illness from insect bites. Malaria, for instance, which can be fatal, is common in parts of Asia, Africa and South America. If you're planning to visit these places, you must have anti-malaria treatment before you go, and take precautionary medication with you, too.

What are the symptoms of Stings and bites?

Stings and bites are characterised by small puncture wounds or blisters that can be itchy or painful and, if they become infected, swollen and pus-filled. If the reaction is severe, a large area surrounding the wound site may become inflamed, stretched and hot.

Different people react to bites and stings with different degrees of severity. Some people hardly notice them, while others can be highly allergic to bites and stings. In serious cases a reaction called anaphylactic shock, can be brought on by a wasp or bee sting. This is a medical emergency that needs urgent treatment with adrenaline injections. Always seek medical attention if you are bitten or stung and get any of the following symptoms:

  • Swelling or itching anywhere else on your body
  • Wheezing
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Fast heart beat
  • Dizziness
  • Faintness
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Swollen face or hands

What are the treatments and remedies of Stings and bites?

Usually no treatment is needed for bites and stings, except for applying a cold compress to relieve the symptoms and taking paracetamol or ibuprofen for any related pain. Make sure you have removed the insect sting by scraping it off the skin using a blunt surface like the edge of a credit card.

Where there's more of a reaction, antihistamine cream can help, as can oral antihistamine medicines, either prescribed by your GP or bought over the counter. If you're treating your child, check with the pharmacist that the medication is suitable for his age, and follow the instructions to the letter. If the wound becomes infected, antibiotics might be needed to treat the infection.

If the bite is very itchy, your GP may prescribe crotamiton cream, which is especially for the relief of itching. A mild corticosteroid cream may be prescribed for a very painful bite or sting. Try not to scratch as this can cause infection.

If local swelling is severe, you might be given a short course of corticosteroid tablets.

Blisters that appear as a result of a bite or sting can easily become infected if the skin breaks, so it's important to try not to scratch or burst them. Cover them with a plaster if that's practical, to protect the top layer of skin.

If you have repeated severe reactions to insect bites or stings, you might be referred to an allergy clinic. There are some treatments that can desensitise you to prevent the symptoms from getting out of control.

If you are severely allergic to wasp or bee stings you may get symptoms of anaphylatic shock, which can be very dangerous. You'll be prescribed pre-loaded adrenaline injection kits, which you should always carry with you. These allow you or someone else to inject yourself with adrenaline, which will quickly prevent symptoms from worsening and help you recover.

This guide 

The information in this Bounty A-Z of Family Health is not a substitute for an examination, diagnosis or treatment by a doctor, midwife, health visitor or any other qualified health professional. If in doubt, always speak to a doctor.

Bounty will not be held responsible or liable for any injury, loss, damage, or illness, however this occurs or appears, after using the information given on this website and in particular the A-Z of Family Health.

Further help

For health advice and information 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, the NHS offers call and web services. You can also visit NHS websites for services, health information and health news at nhs.uk 

  • England – call 111 from any landline or mobile phone free of charge, or visit nhs.uk 
  • Scotland – call 111 from any landline or mobile phone free of charge, or visit nhs24.com 
  • Wales – call 0845 4647 , or visit nhsdirect.wales.nhs.uk 
  • Northern Ireland – visit hscni.net

Stings and bites