Dr Sarah Jarvis, MBE
Author: Dr Sarah Jarvis, MBE, General Practitioner (GP)

Dr Sarah Jarvis is the Clinical Director of the Patient Platform, an active medical writer, broadcaster, and the resident doctor for BBC Radio 2.

5 min read

What Bites & What Stings?

In the UK, unless you’re allergic to insect stings, insect bites, and stings are rarely dangerous – although they can make life pretty miserable.

Stinging insects include wasps, bees, and hornets – these inject venom into you, causing immediate pain. Biting insects include mosquitoes, midges, fleas, horseflies, and bedbugs. These release saliva when they bite – you often won’t notice anything at the time, but your body can react to the saliva, leading to itchy, swollen red areas of skin.

What Bites and Stings abroad?

Countries abroad are home to many of the same biting and stinging insects as the UK. However, if you’re travelling you may come across several insects not found in the UK. These include biting flies (including blackflies, tsetse flies, and sandflies) and kissing bugs.

In addition, in many countries outside Western Europe, the USA, and Australasia, mosquitoes can be infected with a parasite that can lead to malaria, dengue and yellow fever.


How Do I Avoid Being Bitten?

Prevention is always better than cure, so to avoid bites and stings:

  • Wear a high neckline, long sleeves, and long trousers in the evening, when insects are often most active.

  • Use insect repellent applied to all areas of skin not covered by your clothes.

    • Use an insect repellent containing DEET (you can consider one containing Icardin, Lemon Eucalyptus, or IR3535).

    • Reapply regularly, especially if you’re sweaty or go swimming.

    • Use it carefully around your face and eyes and never spray directly onto your face.

  • Wear light-coloured clothing.

  • Avoid strong perfumes or scented products.

  • Keep food covered, especially when you’re outdoors.

  • In areas where mosquitoes carry infectious diseases, use a knock-down spray in your room a couple of hours before going to bed and consider a mosquito net impregnated with an insecticide.

  • To avoid complications if you are bitten by mosquitoes, always check with your pharmacist if you need antimalarial medication (which must be started before you leave on holiday).

What Do I Do If I’m Bitten?

If you have a mild skin reaction, use a cold compress, and take paracetamol or ibuprofen if it’s painful. You may find a steroid cream such as hydrocortisone, which you can buy from pharmacies, soothing. For biting insects in particular, your skin may feel very itchy because of a mild allergic reaction – in that case, antihistamine cream or tablets may help.

At night, try to keep cool – your skin will usually be more itchy if you’re warmer. A sedating antihistamine tablet (ask your pharmacist) can make it easier to sleep if you have lots of bites.

Bee Sting Specifics

For bee stings, if the stinger is still in place, scrape it out as fast as possible with a fingernail, credit card, etc. Don’t grab it to pull it out.

Are Ticks Insects?

Ticks aren’t technically insects – they’re arachnids, related to spiders and mites. However, they can harbour a germ that causes Lyme disease. It’s really important to avoid getting bitten by ticks, which usually live in wooded areas.

Ticks are most active in summer months, so in the countryside stick to paths and avoid long vegetation, or at least wear long-sleeved shirts and trousers tucked into your socks. Check your whole body for ticks when you come in – they’re only the size of a poppy seed before they feed, but they can attach to your skin and feed for days, reaching over 1cm across.


What Do I Do If I’m Bitten By A Tick?

If you find one, never scrape it off as you would a bee sting. Instead, grasp it gently as close to the skin as possible and pull away steadily without squashing it. Ideally, use a tick removal device or tweezers to do this.

The rash of possible early Lyme disease is often described as a ‘bull’s eye’ rash – a red mark which migrates outwards, forming a red circle with a pale inner ring. If you see this, or if you develop flu-like symptoms in the 4 weeks after being in a tick-prone area, contact your doctor.

When Do I Need To See A Doctor?

If you’ve ever had an anaphylactic reaction to an insect sting, you should use your adrenaline auto-injector immediately and seek medical help urgently.

It’s common to get persistent itching and redness after insect bites or stings, lasting up to 10 days. If you’re well in yourself and your symptoms aren’t getting worse, you don’t usually need a doctor.

However, you should always seek help if:

  • You feel generally unwell.

  • You have a fever.

  • The skin reaction continues to spread or gets worse.

  • An area of skin becomes more red and tender, or you get a cloudy yellowish discharge – this may mean the bite is infected.
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