Symptoms, first-aid treatments and prevention tips for insect bites

Whether they are invading your picnic, hitching a ride on your skin or just buzzing around your head, bugs are an annoying and unavoidable part of summer. Still, there are times when bugs are just a nuisance and times when they can cause serious illness or injury.

"Insect bite reactions can range from very mild to very severe. Fortunately, the majority of insect bites only cause symptoms that 'bug' us and shouldn't cause alarm such skin redness, swelling and irritation near the site of the bite," said Khalilah Babino, DO, immediate care physician at Loyola University Health System and assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.

Mild reactions to insect bites can be treated without a trip to the doctor and respond well to home first-aid treatments:
•Wash the bite area with soap and water
•Apply a cool compress to bite area
•Apply over-the-counter anti-itch creams
•If the itching is persistent try over-the-counter antihistamines
•If the area has inflammation, try taking over the counter anti-inflammatory pain

"Some insect bites can cause a reaction such as a hive-like rash that can spread over exposed areas of skin like the arms and legs. This can be an indication of a more extensive reaction and it would be good to contact your primary care provider to have it checked out," Babino said.

Insect bites also can lead to a more serious skin infection called cellulitis. Signs of the infection include:
•Responds poorly to above treatments
•Rash begins to spread
•Bite area becomes increasingly red, firm, painful, warm to touch and/or drains pus
•Fever, fatigue and body aches begin to develop

Unfortunately, insect bites and stings can cause a severe and life-threatening reaction known as anaphylaxis with symptoms that include:
•Severe widespread rash and/or flushing of skin
•Difficulty breathing
•Low blood pressure

"Anaphylaxis requires prompt medical attention. Patients may require oxygen, intravenous fluids, steroids and antihistamine injections. People who have these kinds of reactions should consult with an allergy specialist and learn how to use a self-injected epinephrine," Babino said.

Though it's extremely difficult to avoid all insect bites and stings, Babino offers some small steps to help prevent them.
•Wear shoes, long-sleeve shirts and long pants tucked into socks when outdoors
•Apply bug spray/insect repellent to skin and clothing
•Wear gloves when working outdoors
•Stay indoors at dawn and dusk when mosquitoes are more active
•Make sure your yard is free of standing water as this could be a breading ground for mosquitoes
•Take extra precaution when in wooded areas where ticks are commonly found
•Consider using insecticidal products or call a pest-control company if insects are present in large numbers
•Keep your pets healthy and flea-free


Loyola University Health System (LUHS) 


  1. Uwe Kress Uwe Kress Germany says:

    A traditional way to treat an insect bite here in Germany is with fresh onion. An onion is cut in two halfes. One of them is put to the bite and maybe gently moved, so the fresh juice will come to the skin. It is said to relief ache, to desinfect and to help against swelling. Many people consider this method helpful.

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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