How to treat insect bites and stings

Coping with a painful, sometimes serious problem. The harm done by biting and stinging insects varies. A sting may cause no more than a day’s itching or it may inject painful poisons, stimulate severe allergic response, or carry serious disease. Treatment depends on the insect and on individual reactions.

Spider bites

All spiders inject venom when they bite, but few produce it in sufficient strength to injure a human. Black widow and brown recluse spiders are the exception; their bites can be fatal. A tarantula’s bite is not in itself serious but may introduce bacteria.

Because most spiders look similar to the untrained eye, it is better to attend to the bite than to try to identify the biter. If the bite is very painful, red, or swollen, assume that it maybe dangerous; don’t wait for evidence of poisoning. If sweating, nausea, vomiting, muscle cramps, joint pains, chills, fever, or breathing difficulties develop, get medical help promptly. Meanwhile, keep the bite site lower than the heart, and apply ice or a cold compress to it. A paste of baking soda and water will soothe the pain.

Bees, wasps, and ants

Usually one sting from a bee, wasp, or hornet is dangerous only to those highly sensitive to the venom. But multiple stings-from inadvertently disturbing a nest, for example-can make anyone ill. Get to a medical facility promptly and stay there until a physician clears you. If signs of illness appear, you’ll be close to help.

Don’t waste a minute if someone has a severe allergic reaction to the venom from a single bee sting or from an ant or other insect bite. Signs include swelling beyond the sting site, difficulty in breathing, and faintness. Anyone who already knows he has such an allergy should wear an allergy identification tag and carry a kit with antihistamine pills, a syringe loaded with epinephrine, and instructions. If no such kit is at hand, get medical help immediately.

A person who develops more than a local reaction to any insect bite or sting should see a doctor. Such a reaction might include wheezing, hives, or swelling that begins at the site and eventually puffs up a large area, such as the entire forearm.

Remedies and relief measures

Bee stings and the burning bites of fire ants are painful-and the more venom injected, the greater the pain. Honey bees, the only stinging insect to do so, leave the entire sting apparatus in the wound, and the poison gland continues to release poison after the bee has departed. Don’t pull the stinger out with tweezers or fingernails; this squeezes even more poison from the gland. Instead, scrape it out with the blunt edge of a knife. Meat tenderizer, if applied quickly, will break down the toxin and stop the pain. Failing that, ice, baking-soda paste, or calamine lotion will give some relief.


These same three remedies will soothe the itching from other insect bites. When there are many itching bites all over the body, try adding baking soda to bath water; use 4 tablespoons per gallon of water. Avoid scratching a bite; it further opens the wound, allowing bacteria to invade.

Mosquito bites

Mosquitoes, as well as horseflies, deerflies, and blackflies, bite instead of sting. Wash these bites with soap and cold water; use the same relief measures as for bee stings. Occasionally someone has an allergic reaction to such a bite; generally this is treated like an allergic reaction to a sting.

An added risk is that bacterial or viral disease may enter along with an insect’s saliva. In some areas, mosquitoes are the carriers of malaria and yellow fever. If you are traveling, ask your travel agent, airline, or the embassies of countries you plan to visit about immunizations for these and other diseases.