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9th June, 20204 min read

The best ways to treat insect bites

Medical reviewer:Healthily's medical team
Author:Tomas Duffin
Last reviewed: 10/06/2020
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

Most insect bites cause minor symptoms, such as itching, redness or swelling that goes down within a few hours or days. However, more severe symptoms or allergic reaction can also occur.

Certain biting insects have become more commonplace in countries where they were previously quite rare as average temperatures rise -- so the chance of getting bitten has also gone up.

A wide range of insects are known to bite humans, but the treatment is similar for most types of bite, with a few exceptions.

When to see a doctor

If your bite becomes worse over time, infected or you have an allergic reaction you should see a doctor.

Signs of infection include:

  • swelling, redness and increasing pain around the bite
  • pus forming in and around the bite
  • a high temperature (fever) of 38C or above
  • feeling generally unwell
  • swollen glands -- under your chin, in your neck, armpits or groin

If the skin around the bite becomes infected you may need a course of antibiotics.

Signs of an allergic reaction include:

  • swelling of the face -- this may include the lips, tongue, throat and upper airways
  • itchy skin in many parts of the body -- followed by an itchy, blotchy rash anywhere on the body
  • tummy cramps and feeling sick
  • a faster heart rate
  • wheezing or difficulty breathing
  • feeling faint

Allergic reactions are more common following stings from insects rather than bites, but if you are allergic, symptoms usually develop within 10 minutes.

You should also see a doctor if you’ve been bitten in your mouth or throat, or near your eyes.

Common types of insect bites

It can be difficult to identify what you were bitten by if you didn’t see it happen. But don’t worry if you’re unsure -- the treatment for most bites is similar.

Common types include:

  • mosquito bites -- small red lumps on your skin that are often itchy. Some people may develop blisters
  • tick bites -- small red lumps that aren’t usually painful
  • horsefly bites -- red and raised bitten areas of skin that can be painful
  • midge bites -- small red lumps that are often itchy
  • bedbug bites -- itchy red bumps typically found in straight lines across the skin
  • mite bites -- itchy red lumps that sometimes cause swelling
  • flea bites -- small, itchy red lumps that are sometimes grouped in lines or clusters

Best ways to provide general relief

Most insect bites can be treated at home. Try these self-care techniques:

  • remove the insect safely if still present
  • wash the affected area using soap and water
  • don’t burst any blisters -- to reduce the risk of infection

Insect bites -- what works and what doesn’t

Pain, itchiness or swelling can sometimes last a few days. But you can relieve the symptoms and avoid infection by doing the following:

For ticks

  • DO remove the tick if it’s still attached to your skin -- use tweezers to grip as closely as possible to the skin to ensure the tick’s mouth isn’t left behind. Pull away from the skin without crushing the tick
  • DO apply antiseptic cream to the skin around the bite after removal
  • DON’T use heat, alcohol or petroleum jelly (Vaseline) -- this may agitate the tick and can cause more toxin to be injected into the skin

For pain

  • DO use painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen
  • DON’T use home remedies such vinegar or bicarbonate of soda -- these are unlikely to help

For itching

  • DO speak to your pharmacist about suitable treatments -- such as anti-itch cream or allergy (antihistamine) tablets
  • DON’T scratch the bite as this can increase the risk of infection

For swelling

  • DO apply an ice pack or cold compress (such as a damp flannel) for at least 10 minutes
  • DO elevate the swollen area (above the heart if the swelling is in the leg, ankle or foot if possible
  • DO speak to your pharmacist about treatments -- such as allergy (antihistamine) tablets

There are various precautions you can take to prevent being bitten by an insect, such as using repellent and keeping your skin covered.

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