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Summer bites and stings – a guide to prevention and treatment

29 Jul 2020

Summer can be a time filled with fun and sun. But it also comes with mosquitoes, and other insects and animals that bite and sting. Here’s how to be prepared

Quick facts:

  • Lemon eucalyptus oil is an effective insect repellent
  • Excessive scratching can increase the risk of infection

It is not only the sun that comes out in summer. Hot weather also brings with it many stinging insects and animals.

Follow these simple steps to reduce the risk of stings and bites and take rapid action if things go wrong.

What to know before you set off

Make sure you cover up with loose clothing and use a repellent when you’re outdoors — particularly around water, long grass and woodland. If you’re in grassy, shady areas, be mindful of ticks. Read more about how to prevent tick bites. Insect repellents containing 50% DEET provide up to 12 hours’ protection.

If you prefer a more natural insect repellent, then you’ll be glad to know that lemon eucalyptus, citronella and linalool oil all have proven repellent properties.

If you do get bitten or stung

Most discomfort and itching from bites and stings is short-lived and won’t require medical treatment. A cold compress, ice pack or bag of frozen peas should provide sufficient relief.

Discourage children from scratching bites as it increases the risk of infection.

For persistent itching, adults and children over 10 can use a mild hydrocortisone cream, which is available over the counter from pharmacies.

For painful bites, give paracetamol syrups to infants aged from 2 months, and tablets or syrups to children aged above 6 years. Alternatively, ibuprofen can be given to babies from 3 months, but is not recommended for anyone with asthma.

For swelling and allergic reactions, oral or topical antihistamines can also be used.

Seek medical advice if:

  • Symptoms worsen or don’t improve after a few days
  • You develop any new symptoms after a few days
  • An area of 10cm or more around the bite becomes red and swollen
  • There is pus around the bite
  • You develop swollen glands, breathing difficulties or flu-like symptoms.

If you have a severe allergic reaction, your doctor may suggest carrying an auto-injecting adrenaline pen (also known as an EpiPen).

Mosquitoes

Mosquitoes suck blood through their bite. It doesn’t hurt but it does itch.

Follow the steps above to reduce your risk and to treat bites. If you feel worse after a few days of being bitten, seek medical advice.

Some people believe taking vitamin B deters mosquitoes, but a clinical trial found no benefit.

Midges

There are more than 150 species of biting midges. They are common throughout Scotland, Scandinavia and northern Europe and are often found around water.

Midge bites are not dangerous, but can be intensely itchy. They sometimes swell and develop into fluid-filled blisters. Follow the steps above if bitten — especially trying not to scratch.

Horseflies

Horseflies are bigger than houseflies and have larger, multi-coloured eyes and a painful bite.

Be careful if you’re running or doing something strenuous — there is evidence that horseflies are attracted by exhaled carbon-dioxide.

Ease any pain with a cool compress or local anesthetic spray, and follow the steps above.

Bees, wasps and hornets

Bees only sting to defend themselves — and die when they do — but wasps and hornets are more aggressive. All are attracted to sugary drinks, so when you’re outdoors, avoid drinking from cans and other containers that bees and wasps can fly into. Close unfinished bottled drinks as soon as you can.

If you do get stung then removing the sting quickly is the key to reducing pain. Scrape it out with a credit card, or squeeze it out with your fingers. For these particular stings, avoid using tweezers as doing so can spread the venom (you can use tweezers to remove stings from other creatures such as jellyfish - see below - as well as tick bites).

Wash and, if possible, elevate the area to reduce swelling. Pressing something cold against the bite can also help reduce the swelling.

A small proportion of the population are allergic to bee and wasp stings. Seek immediate medical advice from a doctor in the event of breathing difficulties, fast heartbeat, confusion, clammy skin or light-headedness.

Caterpillars

From late May to early June, oak processionary moth caterpillars — which are found throughout Europe,— are covered in toxic hairs that, if touched, cause an itchy rash. They can also be carried in the wind, leading to sore throats, eye irritation and asthma.

Rinse the area with water and apply an antihistamine (for children aged above 2). Anyone who suffers from asthma should carry an inhaler, and oral antihistamines will ease throat and eye irritation.

Jellyfish

Several species of jellyfish are found in the English Channel, the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. The most venomous is the Lion’s Mane, which grows to 2m in diameter, and has been found off the coasts of France, Germany, Ireland, Sweden and the UK.

Avoid swimming in water where you know there are jellyfish. If you are stung, rinse the area with seawater — not fresh — and remove any spines using tweezers or the edge of a credit card. Soak the area in water as hot as can be tolerated for at least 30 minutes — or apply hot flannels or towels. Take paracetamol or ibuprofen for the pain.

If you are stung by a jellyfish, never…

  • Use vinegar
  • Urinate on it
  • Apply ice or a cold pack
  • Cover the wound.

See a doctor if there is severe pain that does not improve after an hour or so, or if the face or genitals have been stung.

Snakes

The European adder can be found throughout the UK and Europe. It grows up to 90cm, ranges from light to dark brown, and most have a zigzag pattern down their back.
Most bites are not serious but they do require medical attention, so speak to a doctor as soon as you can. Keep the patient calm and still — in the recovery position, if you can. In case of swelling, loosen or remove any clothing or jewellery near the bite. Do not try to suck out or cut out venom and don’t tie anything around the part of the body which has been bitten. Take paracetamol for pain, but not aspirin or ibuprofen as they promote bleeding.
It is especially important to seek medical assistance quickly in the event of breathing difficulties, chest pain, seizures, severe swelling, vomiting or light-headedness.

Life doesn’t always go to plan. It’s wise to be prepared with a first aid kit of the essentials you may need when the unexpected happens

Read more about the essentials to pack in your summer first aid kit.

Reviewed by Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP, Livi

Last updated:
29 Jul 2020

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