What is the best treatment for insect bites?
How to relieve swollen or itchy insect bites
Insect bites or stings usually give you mild symptoms like itching, redness and swelling, and usually get better without any treatment after a few hours or days. But if your skin gets very irritated, itchy or sore, home remedies like ice packs, soothing creams and allergy tablets can help relieve these symptoms.
The best treatment for insect bites depends on the type of insect bite and how your body reacts to it. Sometimes, you may have a more serious allergic reaction or get a skin infection from scratching the bites or stings, so you may need to see a doctor for advice and stronger medication. And some insects like mosquitoes and ticks carry diseases like malaria and Lyme disease, so you may need medication from a doctor like antimalarial drugs and antibiotics.
And although it’s rare, some people may have a life-threatening allergic reaction called anaphylaxis, which needs to be treated in hospital.
How to treat insect bites
It can be hard to identify what’s bitten you if you didn’t see or feel it happen. But don’t worry if you don’t know which insect bit you and how to treat it, as the treatment for most types of insect bites is similar.
Some common insects that bite include:
Home remedies for insect bites
Most insect bites and stings are harmless. It depends on what’s bitten or stung you, but symptoms usually go away after a few days, but they could last up to 10 days. As long as you feel well and your symptoms are getting better, you can manage any symptoms with self-care at home.
Try these self-care techniques as soon as you get bitten or stung:
- remove the insect safely if they’re still on your skin. Read about how to remove a tick safely below
- if you’ve been stung, don’t pull the stinger out with your fingers or with tweezers, as you may spread the poison (venom). Instead scrape the sting out sideways with a bank card, a blunt knife or carefully with your fingernails
- wash the insect bite or sting with soap and water to remove any traces of venom or insect saliva
- raise the part of your body that's been stung or bitten to help bring down the swelling
- use a cold compress like an ice pack or a cold, damp cloth for any swelling
- don’t pop any blisters or scratch your skin – if you do, you may get an infection
Medicines for the treatment of insect bites
Medicines can help with these different symptoms, which may last for a few days or longer:
pain – if your bite is stinging or burning, try simple painkillers to help relieve any pain, but first speak to a pharmacist about how to safely get and use these medicines. Don’t use home remedies like vinegar or bicarbonate of soda for pain relief, as they don’t work
itching – try anti-itch creams like crotamiton or steroid creams (including hydrocortisone cream or lotion). Antihistamine tablets can also help relieve the itchiness, particularly if you have lots of bites. But speak to a pharmacist first for advice on which creams and pills will work best for you. There are different types of antihistamines, so if your skin is really itchy at night, you may be able to try an antihistamine that will help you sleep (known as a sedating antihistamine)
swelling – antihistamines can also help reduce any swelling
You’ll need to see a doctor if you’ve tried all self-care options and the symptoms of your insect bite aren’t getting better or spread, the bite gets infected, you think you may have an infection like Lyme disease or malaria, or you have an allergic reaction.
A doctor may recommend medicines like:
- stronger steroid creams or a short course of steroids tablets
- stronger antihistamines
- antimalarial medicine if you have malaria – they also prevent malaria
- antibiotics for skin infections and Lyme disease
Treatment for an infected insect bite
If you think you’ve got an infection from a bite or sting, including a skin infection, malaria, dengue or Lyme disease, see a doctor. You may need antibiotics or other treatment to clear these infections up. Read more about the symptoms and treatment for infected insect bites.
How to treat a tick bite
Most tick bites are harmless, but you do need to be cautious if you get bitten, as a certain type of tick can spread the serious bacterial infection Lyme disease.
Follow these steps to treat a tick bite:
- Remove the tick if it’s still in your skin – do this with either fine-tipped tweezers that won’t squash the tick or with a tick removal tool from a vet or pet shops. Grip as close to your skin as possible with the tool and pull gently away from your skin, making sure you don’t squash the insect. Remove the whole tick, as you don’t want to leave the tick’s mouth behind in your skin, as it could cause an infection.
- Clean the bite and the area around it with soap and water.
If you develop any of these symptoms within a few weeks of being bitten, see a doctor, as you may have Lyme disease and need antibiotics:
- flu-like symptoms
- muscle and joint pain
sometimes, you may get a rash called a bull’s-eye rash, which usually starts as a red mark and becomes a bigger and bigger circle around the bite and looks like a ‘bull’s eye’ on a dartboard. Read more about how to check for Lyme disease
Emergency treatment for a severe allergic reaction to insect bites
Allergic reactions are more common after insect stings rather than bites, like bee or wasp stings – and you’ll usually notice the symptoms within 10 minutes of being stung.
In rare cases, some people may have a severe allergic reaction to an insect bite or sting, which is known as anaphylaxis. It affects your whole body in a few minutes or a few hours after being bitten and can be life-threatening, so call an ambulance if you think you or someone else has any signs of anaphylaxis. Symptoms include trouble breathing, feeling faint or fainting, a fast heartbeat, clammy skin and feeling very confused and anxious. Read more about the symptoms in the ‘When to see a doctor’ section below.
If someone has any symptoms of anaphylaxis and they have an emergency injection filled with adrenaline (an adrenaline auto-injector), follow these steps:
- Use the adrenaline auto-injector.
- Call an ambulance even if they start to feel better.
- Remove the insect or sting if possible.
- Lie them down flat – unless they’re having breathing difficulties or are pregnant, then keep them upright.
- If their symptoms aren’t improving and they have a second auto-injector, use it.
If you’ve had a severe allergic reaction to a bite or sting before, speak to a doctor about getting an adrenaline auto-injector, so you can use it if it happens again – and always carry it with you.
When to see a doctor for insect bite treatment
Call an ambulance if you’ve been bitten or stung by an insect and have symptoms of anaphylaxis like:
- your face swelling up – this may include your lips, tongue and throat
- an itchy, blotchy rash anywhere on your body
- your heart racing (palpitations)
- shortness of breath or finding it hard to talk
- dizziness or feeling faint, or fainting
- feeling sick (nausea) and being sick (vomiting)
If you’ve been bitten or stung by any insect and your symptoms get worse, you’re worried about them, or you’ve been bitten or stung in your mouth or throat or near your eyes, see a doctor as soon as possible for treatment.
And see a doctor too if you think you have an infection. Common symptoms may include:
- swelling, redness and increasing pain around the bite – your skin may also feel hot
- pus 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, for example
- a circular or bull’s-eye rash
- red sores or blisters
- a red or dark line that runs from the bite or sting
Your health questions answered
Which antihistamines are best for insect bites?Answered by: Healthily's medical team
There are 2 different types of antihistamines: sedating antihistamines, which make you sleepy, and non-drowsy (non-sedating) antihistamines. They come in a variety of forms, including tablets, sprays, creams and eye drops. Sedating antihistamines include chlorpheniramine and promethazine – they’re mainly taken at night to help you sleep if your symptoms are making it hard to sleep. Non-drowsy antihistamines include cetirizine, fexofenadine and loratadine. Speak to a pharmacist about the best one for you, depending on your needs and if you have any medical conditions. You may find that some may suit you better than others. But don’t use any sedating antihistamines if you’re driving.
- treatment for an insect bite or sting will depend on how your body reacts, but usually you can treat bites and stings at home
- if you’ve got mild symptoms from an insect bite like some swelling or itching, you can try an ice pack, soothing creams and antihistamines – speak to a pharmacist for advice on the best medicines for you
- if you have a more serious reaction to a bite or sting, you’ll need to see a doctor who will advise on stronger medicine if needed, like antibiotics
- if you have any signs of anaphylaxis, call an ambulance immediately – these include trouble breathing, fainting, a fast heartbeat and feeling very confused and anxious
- if you’ve had a severe allergic reaction to a bite or sting before, ask a doctor about getting an adrenaline auto-injector, so you can use it if it happens again