How To Treat Insect Stings This Summer And Avoid Health Complications
For most of us, we eagerly await the coming of summer for the sunshine, being able to spend more time outdoors, and so much more. We love just about everything about summer except, that is, the bugs.
And while the warmer weather can bring the occasional insect bite or sting, it’s usually nothing more than a temporary annoyance. Most people can safely treat insect stings at home and avoid any adverse health complications.
Maintaining good health is essential at any time, but especially during these times. So, let’s look at how to treat the inevitable occasional bee, wasp, yellow jacket, and other insect stings.
What are the Most Common Stinging Insects?
- Yellow Jackets
- Fire Ants
Honeybees are not typically aggressive. They only sting if their hive is threatened or if they’ve been stepped on.
The honeybee is unique in that it can only sting once because it leaves its stinger behind. The stinger is attached to its internal organs, so the bee dies soon after stinging, small consolation to its victim.
Bumblebees are fat, fuzzy bees that, like the honeybee, are not aggressive. Unlike the honeybee, however, bumblebees can, and sometimes do, sting multiple times.
Wasps are not as aggressive as we tend to think of them. They are protecting their home, and will often sting multiple times during an attack. Their greyish-brown nests look like paper, and they build them in trees and bushes, and on buildings.
Hornets are the largest member of the wasp family and sting repeatedly when threatened. They build their nests in bushes and trees and on buildings.
Dirt and mud daubers are also wasps, but they rarely sting.
Yellow Jackets are another member of the wasp family. They nest in or on the ground, in old logs, and inside walls. If you see them flying in and out of a hole in the ground, stay clear.
Fire ants live in large mounds and open areas. They are extremely aggressive toward anyone who disturbs their mound, which is their nest. They don’t bite, they sting, and each fire ant is capable of stinging multiple times in rapid succession.
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An attack from a fire ant usually causes instant and intense pain in the sting site area that quickly gives way to severe itching and irritation. Small red swollen marks form and convert to pus-filled blisters within 24 hours, due to the venom left behind.
See NOTE below for additional treatments for a fire ant sting.
How to Treat Insect Stings
Treatment is generally the same for most insect bites and stings, with a few exceptions, depending on the severity of the attack and the individual’s health and reaction to it.
Most insect bites and stings are mild, improving within a few days. Most people can treat the sting quickly and easily at home without experiencing any additional health complications.
1. Normal Reaction
A normal reaction causes discomfort or temporary sharp pain, redness, warmth, and itching at the sting site.
How to Treat:
- If the stinger is left behind, try to remove it as soon as possible by scraping it off sideways with a fingernail or credit card. Do not try to remove it below the skin surface by squeezing or using tweezers, as this can release any remaining venom and allow it to spread.
- Wash the area with soap and water.
- Apply a cool or cold compress to the area for at least 10 minutes to reduce pain, swelling, and the spread of venom.
- Resist scratching the sting area to avoid the risk of infection and increase itching and swelling.
- Elevate the affected area if possible, to reduce swelling.
NOTE: For fire ant stings, be sure to keep the area clean and resist the urge to scratch or squeeze the pustules (blisters) to prevent a secondary bacterial infection from setting in. You may also do the following:
- Apply hydrocortisone cream to the skin to reduce swelling, 20 minutes on, 20 minutes off.
- Apply a triple antibiotic ointment to the sting to help prevent infection in stings that have been opened by scratching.
- Take an oatmeal bath to reduce itching.
The discomfort, swelling, and itching can sometimes last a few days but should go away on its own if left alone. You may also choose to try one or more of these additional, natural health treatments for insect stings.
Apple cider vinegar
Vinegar may help neutralize the bee venom. Apply a soaked cloth or bandage to the sting site. You can also soak the area in a basin of apple cider vinegar for a minimum of 15 minutes.
Honey is a well-known home remedy to soothe itching and to heal wounds. Apply a small amount directly to the affected area, cover with a loose bandage or cloth, and leave on for up to an hour.
To neutralize the insect venom, make a thick paste of baking soda and water and apply it to the affected area. Cover the paste with a bandage and leave on for at least 15 minutes. Re-apply as needed, as this will also help reduce the itching, swelling, and pain.
Aloe vera is used to soothe many skin irritations, including sunburn and insect stings.
Tea Tree Oil
Tea tree essential oil is a natural antiseptic that may also help with the pain. Do not use on young children, and never use undiluted essential oils directly on the skin. Instead, mix a few drops of the essential oil with a carrier oil such as olive or coconut oil before applying.
2. Large Reaction
A large local reaction causes excessive redness and swelling, extending the affected area gradually over the course of a couple of days. The swelling will peak at about 48 hours from the initial sting and reach about five inches in total area. While it often looks alarming, it’s usually no more serious than a normal reaction. Large local reactions gradually get better after five to ten days.
How to Treat:
Follow the steps above for how to treat a normal reaction, including any optional natural treatments that you find helpful.
For a large local reaction, you may also want to:
- Apply hydrocortisone cream or calamine lotion to the sting area several times a day until the symptoms go away.
- Take an anti-inflammatory such as Motrin or Advil for the pain.
- Take an antihistamine that contains diphenhydramine (Benadryl, for example) or chlorpheniramine to reduce the itching.
As always, if you have any questions or concerns, call your doctor.
3. Severe Reaction
The most serious reaction to an insect bite or sting is an allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis, which is a real danger to your health requiring immediate medical attention. It is estimated that between one and two million people in the United States are severely allergic to stinging insect venom.
If you or someone you know begins to experience any of the following symptoms shortly after being bitten or stung by an insect, don’t try to treat it yourself. Protect your health or that of your loved one by calling 911. A severe allergic reaction that affects multiple parts of your body (systemic) can be life-threatening if not treated right away.
Serious symptoms include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Swelling in face, tongue, or throat
- Rapid heartbeat
- Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
- Nausea or diarrhea
- Itchiness or hives in large areas
- Stomach cramps
- Metallic taste in the mouth
- Cardiac arrest
As always, the best cure for anything is prevention. You don’t want to endanger your health by discovering too late that you are allergic to a bee or other kind of insect sting.
So, if you’re planning on being outdoors for any length of time this summer, here are some tips to avoid getting stung:
- Go out wearing scented perfume, hairspray, or lotion, especially floral scents
- Use scented deodorant
- Leave sweet, sugary drinks in uncovered cups or cans
- Leave food or garbage uncovered
- Go barefoot in the grass
- Wear brightly colored clothing or clothing with a floral pattern
Also, don’t panic or wave your arms around. Try to stay calm and walk away slowly.
- Leave insect nests alone
- Cover exposed skin
- Apply a safe and effective insect repellant
- Skip the perfume
- Wear unscented lotion
- Wear unscented deodorant
- Keep food and drinks covered at all times
- Keep all garbage properly disposed of and tightly covered
- Wear light-colored clothing
- Wear closed shoes
- Rinse off perspiration
Remain calm and in control, removing yourself from the situation as quickly as you can so you can treat the insect sting right away.
These simple tips on how to prevent and treat insect stings of all kinds will help you and your family enjoy a safe and healthy summer.