Insect Bites & Stings: An Overview

Everything you need to know about insect bites and stings, including how to identify an insect bite and what to do if you've been bitten.

Which insects typically bite?

Some insects bite more readily than others, though only usually when disturbed or provoked. The majority of insect bites are ultimately harmless, but nonetheless uncomfortable or irritating in their early stages.

Common causes of insect bites and stings in the UK include:

  • Mosquitoes
  • Wasps
  • Bees
  • Hornets
  • Bedbugs
  • Fleas
  • Horse or black flies
  • Head or public lice

How will I know if I've been bitten?

If you have been stung or bitten by an insect, you may experience any combination of the following symptoms:

  • Itchy lump or rash on the sting or bite site 
  • Swollen or fluid-filled blister 
  • Bruising

These symptoms are generally gone after a few days, but if they aren’t, or if you experience any of the symptoms below, you should speak to a doctor as soon as possible:

  • Wheezing
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Joint pain
  • Sickness
  • A temperature of 38-40ºC or more

If any of the symptoms described to the left are present, it may be evidence of a deeper problem or issue, like an allergic reaction to your insect bite or sting.

If you have difficulty breathing as a result of an insect bite or sting, call an ambulance.

What should I do if I've been bitten?

If you have been bitten or stung by an insect:

  1. Remove the sting or tick at the point where it meets the skin
  2. Wash the affected area with soap and water
  3. Apply a cold compress for 10 minutes
  4. Raise the affected area if possible
  5. Avoid scratching your bite or sting
  6. Avoid home remedies like vinegar or bicarbonate of soda

Pain, swelling and itching can persist for a few days, in spite of the above care and preparation. Speak to a pharmacist for appropriate painkillers, creams and antihistamines to make the wait more bearable.

How can I avoid insect bites?

The simplest ways to avoid being bitten or stung are to:

  • Wearing clothing that doesn’t leave bare skin exposed (e.g. socks, long trousers, long-sleeved shirts)
  • Wearing gloves when gardening
  • Avoiding going outside without appropriate footwear
  • Using insect repellant wherever possible
  • Not panicking and batting away wasps, hornets or bees when they approach you
  • Avoiding approaching insect hives or nests
  • Avoiding wearing perfumes and floral or dark clothing

If you suffer from severe allergic reactions, be sure to carry an emergency kit with you – and make sure whoever you are travelling with knows how to use it if you have an allergic reaction to an insect bite or sting.

Your insect bite and sting questions, answered

Illustration of a consultation between patient and doctor

People are generally aware of when they have been bitten or stung, identifying the offending insect moments after the attack. If you are unable to identify the insect that stung or bit you, take a picture with your phone if you can – that will make it much easier to identify the likely level of severity in the bite or sting if you decide to see a doctor with your symptoms further down the line.

Using the steps above, the majority of insect bites and stings can be treated at home – with the aid of over-the-counter creams, sprays, antihistamines or painkillers if deemed necessary by the individual.

If any of the more severe symptoms described above (difficulty swallowing, weakness, dizziness etc.) develop, see a doctor. If you have difficulty breathing following an insect bite or sting, call an ambulance.

To directly quote the NHS, “most insect bites and stings are not serious and will get better within a few hours or days”. So with this in mind, the general outlook for people with insect bites and stings is positive. That said, if you experience any of the complications described above (under “How will I know if I’ve been bitten?”), speak to a doctor as soon as possible. If difficulty breathing is experienced as a result of an insect bite or sting, call an ambulance rather than speaking to a doctor.

Illustration of a consultation between patient and doctor