Fitness Facts: Insect bites and stings
By Connie Colbert
Director, Canyon Health and Wellness Clinic
Insect bites and stings are common, and reactions can vary from mild to severe. An allergic reaction also can occur from the insect itself or from the toxins injected with the bite or sting. While most reactions are mild, it is important to know what do when a reaction occurs and when it is necessary to seek medical attention.
Some people have severe reactions to bees, wasps, hornets, fire ants or scorpions. Immediate medical attention is required for symptoms such as:
- Swelling of the lips, eyelids or throat
- Difficulty breathing
- Hoarse voice or tongue swelling
- Dizziness, fainting or confusion
- Rapid heartbeat
- Nausea, cramps or vomiting
- If the scorpion sting is of a child or elderly adult.
The bites of ants, mosquitoes, spiders and bed bugs, while they can be irritating, are not a cause for heightened concern.
Sometimes, it is difficult to tell which type of insect has caused the reaction because many insect reactions are similar.
A few tips may be helpful in determining what type:
Flying insects tend to hit exposed skin areas, while bugs such as fleas tend to hit the lower legs and around the waist and often have several bites grouped together. Some individuals are far more sensitive to insects and have more severe reactions, so the fact that no one else in the family has lesions does not rule out an insect bite.
The region in which you live or travel also may help determine the cause:
In the Midwest and East Coast regions of the U.S., mosquitoes, flying insects and ticks account for most bites. In drier areas of the Western U.S., crawling insects such as spiders and scorpions are more of a problem.
We know that some people are more prone to insect bites than others, but the evidence as to why is unclear. Theories include body heat, odor or blood type, but none is proven. If you know that you are prone to bites, prepare before you participate in outdoor events or known areas of bug infestation.
Look before you sit in the grass or down on a park bench. You might be sitting on or near an ant hill or under a wasp nest.
Use insect repellent, wear protective clothing and be careful when you eat outside because food attracts insects. If you know you have a severe reaction to insect bites or stings, carry an emergency epinephrine kit.
Most reactions cause redness, itching, stinging and minor swelling.
What can you do at home to treat a minor reaction? Here are a few tips:
- Remove the stinger, if needed
- Wash the area with soap and water
- Apply a cool compress. (This may be a cloth damped with cold water or filled with ice). This will help reduce pain and swelling.
- If the bite is on an arm or leg, elevate that part either equal to or above your heart.
- Apply 1 percent hydrocortisone cream or calamine lotion. You can even make a paste out of backing soda. Apply 2-3 times per day until the symptoms go away.
- Take an antihistamine such as Benadryl or a non-sedating one such as Claritin to reduce itching.
If the redness, itching or swelling increase or you develop fever, fatigue or flu-like symptoms, it is best to seek medical advice because some insects carry disease and bacteria that can cause infection.
Some arthropod bites and stings are more dangerous than others. If a black widow or brown recluse spider is suspected, apply ice to the area and seek medical help.
Symptoms of these bites include:
- A deep blue or purple area around the bite, with surrounding white area and red outer ring
- Abdominal pain
- Fever, fatigue, muscle stiffness
For images of different types of bites and what to expect to see:
When in doubt, always seek the advice of a medical professional before the symptoms progress!