Insect bite first aid and prevention

We all experience an insect bite at some point in our lives, especially during the summer season. Here are some first-aid tips and preventive measures so you can protect yourself from insect bites.

What can you do to reduce itching and pain from bites and stings?

The best approach is to apply a topical therapy directly to the area that itches. Any pharmacy will carry over-the-counter creams and ointments that are labeled to reduce itching. Look for packages that include “1% Hydrocortisone,” which will provide fast relief and make the lesion vanish within a few days of use. Although it is a steroid, it is harmless and not absorbed into the body.

Other over-the-counter treatments include calamine (a lotion that soothes and coats the skin) and anti-histamine creams. Caladryl is one product that combines calamine with a common anti-histamine.   It can be used safely along with hydrocortisone. 

Painful bites and stings are best treated with ice packs to the affected area or the use of oral analgesics, such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen.  

What’s the best way to remove a bee stinger?

Using a straight-edge object, like a credit card, scrape the stinger away in a side-to-side motion. You should avoid using tweezers to remove the stinger because it may push more venom into the skin. Once the stinger is removed, clean the area with soap and water. To reduce any swelling, apply ice or another cold compress to help reduce swelling.

What should I do if I find a tick on my child or myself?

It is easier to spot ticks if you are wearing light-colored clothing. Make sure you check for ticks after spending time outdoors.

If you find a tick, carefully remove it with tweezers. Grab the tick as close to the skin as possible and pull it straight out. After that, drop it into a plastic bag, seal it closed, and dispose of it in the trash.

You can wash the area of the tick contact with an antiseptic, like soap and water or rubbing alcohol.

A tick has to be on the skin for 36 hours to transmit Lyme disease, so early removal of the tick is essential. If you want to get the tick tested for disease, contact your local health department to see if it offers testing.

When to contact a medical professional

Most of the time, bites and stings can be treated at home. There are times, however, when you should seek medical attention, especially if you experience any of these symptoms:

Signs of allergic reactions

Signs of an allergic reaction can appear within seconds to minutes, these include:

  • Sneezing
  • Wheezing
  • Hives
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Sudden anxiety
  • Dizziness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest tightness
  • Itching or swelling of the eyes, lips, or other areas of the face

You should be evaluated by an allergist if you or your child has experienced an allergic reaction to a sting or bite. This specialist may advise you to wear a medical identification tag that states your allergy, and to carry epinephrine, a drug used to treat serious or life-threatening allergic reactions.

Symptoms of Lyme disease

Lyme disease is transmitted through a bite from an infected tick. It can cause:

  • Fever
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Skin rash that resembles a “bull’s-eye”

If it is left untreated, infection can spread to the nervous system, joints, and heart. In very rare instances Lyme disease can be fatal.

Symptoms of West Nile virus

West Nile virus is transmitted by mosquitoes. It can cause flu-like symptoms such as:

  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Body aches
  • Skin rash

Symptoms of Rocky Mountain spotted fever

Rocky Mountain spotted fever is caused by a tiny bacterium carried by ticks. Despite its name, it almost never occurs in the Rocky Mountains, but is seen in the southeast part of the United States. This infection is usually mild, resulting in a fever and rash, but it has been known to cause a severe, generalized infection that can require hospitalization. The severe form is characterized by the bursting of small blood vessels in the arms, hands, legs, and feet.    


The best care is to prevent bites in the first place. Practice these bug safety tips.

  • Avoid wooded, brushy, and grassy areas
  • Use structural barriers like window screens and netting.
  • Don’t wear heavily scented soaps or perfumes.
  • Wear long sleeves and long pants when you can.
  • Avoid wearing bright colors, they attract bees.
  • Be cautious when eating or drinking outside.
  • Tuck pant legs into socks or shoes.
  • Wear a hat for added protection.
  • Get rid of containers with standing water that give mosquitoes a place to breed. This includes water in flowerpots and outdoor pet dishes.
  • Use insect repellent if nonchemical methods have been ineffective and you spend time in tall grass and woody areas.
  • Treat your camping gear, clothes, and shoes with permethrin, which repels and kills ticks, mosquitoes, and other insects.

Insect repellent tips

It’s important to know that sunscreen and insect repellent can be used at the same time. It is recommended that you apply the sunscreen first then the insect repellent after. There are even some products that use a combination of sunscreen and insect repellent.

Permethrin is an insecticide that is not meant to be applied to the skin. It is used on clothing, bed nets, and tents to reduce the frequency of insect bites. It can be very effective when combined with an approved insect repellent, such as DEET or picaridin.

Tips for applying insect repellent

  • Spray repellent on clothes or skin, but not on the face.
  • Don’t use repellent on babies.
  • Repellent used on children should contain no more than 10 percent DEET. Oil of eucalyptus products should not be used on children under three years.
  • Don’t use repellent that’s meant for people on your pets.
  • Use repellent according to the labeled instructions.
  • Avoid applying it to children’s hands, around the eyes, or to areas where there are cuts or irritated skin.
  • Store repellent out of children’s reach.
  • Wash the repellent off with soap and water and contact a poison control center (1-800-222-1222) if you (or your child) experience a reaction to insect repellent.
  • After you come inside, remove the repellent with soap and water.

Know when to seek care

Last reviewed: 
January 2018

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