Bug Bites and Stings
Bug bites and stings usually are just annoying, causing temporary discomfort and pain, but no serious or lasting health problems. But sometimes, they can cause infections that require treatment and allergic reactions that can be serious, even fatal.
Parents should know the signs of an infection or allergic reaction, and when to get medical care. Inform all caregivers if a child has any history of complications so they know what to do in the event of a bug bite or sting.
Handling Bee and Wasp Stings
- A bee will usually leave behind a stinger attached to a venom sac. Try to remove it as quickly as possible using a scraping motion, without pinching the venom sac at the end. (Wasps don’t leave their stingers in the skin after stinging, which means they can sting more than once.)
- Wash the area carefully with soap and water. Do this two to three times a day until the skin is healed.
- Apply an ice pack wrapped in a cloth or a cold, wet washcloth for a few minutes.
- Give acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain.
- For pain and itching, give an over-the-counter oral antihistamine if your child’s doctor says it’s OK; follow dosage instructions for your child’s age and weight. You could also apply a corticosteroid cream or calamine lotion to the sting area.
- A sting anywhere in the mouth needs immediate medical attention because stings in oral mucous membranes can quickly cause severe swelling that may block airways.
- Seek medical care if you notice a large skin rash or swelling around the sting site, or if swelling or pain persists for more than 3 days, which could indicate an infection.
- The following signs may indicate a serious or potentially life-threatening allergic reaction. Use an epinephrine auto-injector if it’s available, and call 911 right away if you notice:
- wheezing or difficulty breathing
- tightness in throat or chest
- swelling of the lips, tongue, or face
- dizziness or fainting
- nausea or vomiting
If your child has had an allergic reaction to a bee or wasp sting in the past, see your doctor for a prescription for an epinephrine auto-injector.
Handling Spider Bites
- Wash the area carefully with soap and water. Do this two to three times a day until skin is healed.
- Apply cool compresses.
- Give acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain.
- To protect against infection, apply an antibiotic ointment and keep the child’s hands washed. If you have any reason to suspect a bite by a black widow or brown recluse spider, use soap and water to wash the bite site, apply a cold compress or ice wrapped in a washcloth, and take your child to the emergency room. Even if a child doesn’t show any symptoms, get medical attention right away.
Most spiders found in the United States are harmless, with the exception of the black widow and the brown recluse spider. The brown recluse spider — a tiny oval brown spider with a small shape like a violin on its back — is found mostly in midwestern and southern parts of the United States. This spider likes to hide in dark, quiet places like in attics or garages, under porches, and in woodpiles. The bites usually don’t hurt at first (a child might not even be aware of the bite), but in some cases they cause swelling and changes in skin color and a blister, which can later scar. Chills, fever, rash, pain, nausea, and rarely, more serious symptoms like seizures or coma can follow a bite.
The black widow spider, which is found all over North America, has a shiny black body and an orange-red hourglass shape on its underbelly. The venom (a toxic substance) in a black widow bite can cause painful cramps that show up within a few hours of the bite. The cramps can start in the muscles around the bite and then spread. The bite may also lead to nausea, vomiting, chills, fever, headache, and muscle aches. If your child has any of these symptoms — or you think he or she has been bitten — go to the emergency room right away.
Handling Scorpion Stings
Another sting to look out for is one caused by a scorpion.
- Wash the area with soap and water, apply a cold compress or ice wrapped in a washcloth on the sting, and take your child to the emergency room immediately.
If a person gets stung by a scorpion, the area of the sting will hurt and may get swollen or red, depending on the type of scorpion. More severe reactions from the venom (poison) involving other parts of the body also can happen.
Because it’s hard to tell a dangerous scorpion from one that is harmless, all scorpion stings must be treated by a doctor. Capture the scorpion for identification if it’s possible to do so safely, and bring it with you to the doctor. Knowing the type of scorpion that caused the bite may make treatment easier.
Handling Tick Bites
Check kids and pets for ticks carefully after you’ve been in or around a wooded area. Ticks removed within 24 to 48 hours are less likely to transmit diseases like Lyme disease. Common types of ticks include dog ticks and deer ticks (deer ticks may be carriers of Lyme disease).
If you find a tick on your child:
- Call your doctor, who may want you to save the tick in a sealed container or zip-locked bag for identification later.
- Use tweezers to grasp the tick firmly at its head or mouth, next to the skin.
- Pull firmly and steadily upward on the tick until it lets go (do not twist or jerk the tick), then swab the bite site with alcohol.
- Don’t use petroleum jelly or a lit match to kill and remove a tick. These methods don’t get the tick off the skin, and may cause the insect to burrow deeper and release more saliva (which increases the chances of disease transmission).
Preventing Bites and Stings
Here ways to protect your family from bites and stings:
- Prevent flea infestations by treating your house (including all carpets, furniture, and pets) regularly during the warmer months. Frequent vacuuming also can help.
- Avoid mosquitoes by staying away from areas where mosquitoes breed, such as still pools or ponds, during hot weather. Remove standing water from birdbaths, buckets, etc.; try to stay inside when mosquitoes are most active (dawn and dusk); and apply insect repellent when kids go outside.
- When in tick country, stay in the center of trails, avoiding woody areas with high grass. Check kids for ticks every few hours and as soon as you come inside. Remove any you find immediately. The most important places to check are behind the ears, on the scalp, on the back of the neck, in the armpits, in the groin area, and behind the knees. Have kids shower as soon as they come in from outdoors. Check your pets when they come inside, too. Use tick products on pets to prevent them from being bitten.
- Use insect repellent when spending time outdoors camping, hiking, etc. Repellents that contain 10% to 30% DEET (N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide) are approved for mosquitoes, ticks, and some other bugs. Repellents that contain picaridin (KBR 3023) or oil of lemon eucalyptus (p-menthane 3,8-diol or PMD) are effective against mosquitoes. Follow the instructions carefully and don’t overuse the product — using more than is needed won’t provide any extra protection. Reapply insect repellent according to the directions after swimming.
- When you or your kids are in wooded areas, tuck clothes in and keep as covered up as possible. Tuck pants into socks and shirts into pants. Wear shoes and socks when walking on grass, even it’s just for a minute. Bees and wasps can sting unprotected feet.
- Wear gloves when gardening.
- Don’t disturb bee or wasp nests.
- Don’t swat at buzzing insects — they will sting if they feel threatened.
- Be aware that spiders might be hiding in undisturbed piles of wood, seldom-opened boxes, or corners behind furniture, and proceed with caution.
Reviewed by: Larissa Hirsch, MD
Date reviewed: April 2014