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Ant stings and bites

Read about some of the most common insect bites and stings, how they're treated and when to get medical advice.

Most insect bites and stings are not serious and will get better within a few hours or days.

But occasionally they can become infected, cause a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) or spread serious illnesses such as Lyme disease and malaria.

Bugs that bite or sting include wasps, hornets, bees, horseflies, ticks, mosquitoes, fleas, bedbugs, spiders and midges.

This page covers:

Symptoms

What to do if you've been bitten or stung

When to get medical advice

When to get emergency medical help

Prevention

Symptoms of insect bites and stings

Insect bites and stings will usually cause a red, swollen lump to develop on the skin. This may be painful and in some cases can be very itchy.

The symptoms will normally improve within a few hours or days, although sometimes they can last a little longer.

Some people have a mild allergic reaction and a larger area of skin around the bite or sting becomes swollen, red and painful. This should pass within a week.

Occasionally, a severe allergic reaction can occur, causing symptoms such as breathing difficulties, dizziness and a swollen face or mouth. This requires immediate medical treatment (see below).

Read more about the symptoms of common insect bites and stings.

What to do if you've been bitten or stung

To treat an insect bite or sting:

  • Remove the sting or tick if it's still in the skin (see treating insect bites and stings for advice about how to do this safely).
  • Wash the affected area with soap and water.
  • Apply a cold compress (such as a flannel or cloth cooled with cold water) or an ice pack to any swelling for at least 10 minutes.
  • Raise or elevate the affected area if possible, as this can help reduce swelling.
  • Avoid scratching the area, to reduce the risk of infection.
  • Avoid traditional home remedies, such as vinegar and bicarbonate of soda, as they're unlikely to help.

The pain, swelling and itchiness can sometimes last a few days. Ask your pharmacist about over-the-counter treatments that can help, such as painkillers, creams for itching and antihistamines.

Read more about treatments for insect bites and stings.

When to get medical advice

Contact your GP or call NHS 111 for advice if:

  • you're worried about a bite or sting
  • your symptoms don't start to improve within a few days or are getting worse
  • you've been stung or bitten in your mouth or throat, or near your eyes
  • a large area (around 10cm or more) around the bite becomes red and swollen
  • you have symptoms of a wound infection, such as pus or increasing pain, swelling or redness
  • you have symptoms of a more widespread infection, such as a fever, swollen glands and other flu-like symptoms

When to get emergency medical help

Dial 999 for an ambulance immediately if you or someone else has symptoms of a severe reaction, such as:

  • wheezing or difficulty breathing
  • a swollen face, mouth or throat
  • nausea or vomiting
  • a fast heart rate
  • dizziness or feeling faint
  • difficulty swallowing
  • loss of consciousness

Emergency treatment in hospital is needed in these cases.

Prevent insect bites and stings

There are some simple precautions you can take to reduce your risk of being bitten or stung by insects.

For example, you should:

  • Remain calm and move away slowly if you encounter wasps, hornets or bees – don't wave your arms around or swat at them.
  • Cover exposed skin by wearing long sleeves and trousers.
  • Wear shoes when outdoors.
  • Apply insect repellent to exposed skin – repellents that contain 50% DEET (diethyltoluamide) are most effective.
  • Avoid using products with strong perfumes, such as soaps, shampoos and deodorants – these can attract insects.
  • Be careful around flowering plants, rubbish, compost, stagnant water, and in outdoor areas where food is served.

You may need to take extra precautions if you're travelling to part of the world where there's a risk of serious illnesses. For example, you may be advised to take antimalarial tablets to help prevent malaria.

Read more about how to prevent insect bites and stings.

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Ant stings and bites

Find out about the symptoms of common insect bites and stings, including wasp stings, mosquito bites, horsefly bites and tick bites.

An insect bite or sting often causes a small, red lump on the skin, which may be painful and itchy.

Many bites will clear up within a few hours or days and can be safely treated at home. Read more about treating bites and stings.

It can be difficult to identify what you were bitten or stung by if you didn't see it happen. But don't worry if you're not sure – the treatment for most bites and stings is similar.

Common insect bites and stings include:

Wasp and hornet stings

A wasp or hornet sting causes a sudden, sharp pain at first. A swollen red mark may then form on your skin, which can last a few hours and may be painful and itchy.

Sometimes a larger area around the sting can be painful, red and swollen for up to a week. This is a minor allergic reaction that isn't usually anything to worry about.

A few people may experience a serious allergic reaction (anaphylaxis), causing breathing difficulties, dizziness and a swollen face or mouth. Dial 999 for an ambulance immediately if you have these symptoms.

Bee stings

A bee sting feels similar to a wasp sting, but the sting will often be left in the wound. See treating insect bites for advice about how to remove this safely.

The sting can cause pain, redness and swelling for a few hours. As with wasp stings, some people may have a mild allergic reaction that lasts up to a week.

Serious allergic reactions can also occasionally occur, causing breathing difficulties, dizziness and a swollen face or mouth. Dial 999 for an ambulance immediately if you have these symptoms.

Mosquito bites

Bites from mosquitoes often cause small red lumps on your skin. These are usually very itchy. Some people may also develop fluid-filled blisters.

Mosquitoes don't cause major harm in the UK, but in some parts of the world they can spread serious illnesses such as malaria.

Get medical help right away if you develop worrying symptoms, such as a fever, chills, headaches and vomiting, after a mosquito bite abroad.

Tick bites

Tick bites aren't usually painful, so you may not realise you've been bitten straight away.

Symptoms of a tick bite can include:

  • a small red lump on the skin
  • swelling
  • itchiness
  • blistering
  • bruising

Ticks in the UK can sometimes carry a potentially serious infection called Lyme disease, so they should be removed as soon as possible if you find one attached to your skin. See treating insect bites for advice about how to do this safely.

See your GP if you develop any symptoms of Lyme disease, such as a rash that looks like a "bull's-eye" on a dart board or a fever.

Horsefly bites

A bite from a horsefly can be very painful and the bitten area of skin will usually be red and raised.

You may also experience:

  • a larger red, raised rash (called hives or urticaria)
  • dizziness
  • weakness
  • wheezing
  • part of your body becoming puffy and swollen

Horsefly bites can take a while to heal and can become infected. See your GP if you have symptoms of an infection, such as pus or increasing pain, redness and swelling.

Midge or gnat bites

Midge and gnat bites often look similar to mosquito bites.

They usually cause small, red lumps that can be painful and very itchy, and can sometimes swell up alarmingly.

Some people may also develop fluid-filled blisters.

Bedbug bites

Bedbug bites typically occur on the face, neck, hands or arms. They're typically found in straight lines across the skin.

The bites aren't usually painful, and if you've not been bitten by bedbugs before, you may not have any symptoms.

If you have been bitten before, you may develop itchy red bumps that can last for several days.

Mite bites

Mite bites cause very itchy red lumps to develop on the skin and can sometimes also cause blisters.

Mites usually bite uncovered skin, but you may be bitten on your tummy and thighs if your pet has mites and has been sitting on your lap.

Some mites burrow into the skin and cause a condition called scabies.

Flea bites

Flea bites can cause small, itchy red lumps that are sometimes grouped in lines or clusters. Blisters may also occasionally develop.

Fleas from cats and dogs often bite below the knee, commonly around the ankles. You may also get flea bites on your forearms if you've been stroking or holding your pet.

Spider bites

Bites from spiders in the UK are uncommon, but some native spiders – such as the false widow spider (see image above) – are capable of giving a nasty bite.

Spider bites leave small puncture marks on the skin, which can be painful and cause redness and swelling.

Some spiders in the UK are venomous and their bites can cause nausea, vomiting, sweating and dizziness. Bites can also become infected or cause a severe allergic reaction in rare cases. Get medical help immediately if you have any severe or worrying symptoms after a spider bite.

Ant stings and bites

The most common ant in the UK, the black garden variety, doesn't sting or bite, but red ants (see image above), wood ants and flying ants sometimes do.

Ant bites and stings are generally harmless, although you'll probably feel a nip and a pale pink mark may develop on your skin.

Sometimes the bitten area may be painful, itchy and swollen.

Ladybird bites

All ladybirds can bite, but a type called the harlequin ladybird found throughout much of the UK is more aggressive and tends to bite more often.

The harlequin ladybird can be red or orange with multiple spots. Look out for a white spot on its head – other ladybirds don't have these patches.

Ladybird bites can be painful, but aren't usually anything to worry about.

Flower bug bites

Flower bugs are common insects that feed on aphids and mites. You can identify the common flower bug by its tiny oval body, reflective wings and orange-brown legs (see image above).

Flower bugs bites can be painful and very itchy, and are often slow to heal.

Caterpillar hairs

The caterpillars of the oak processionary moth are a real pest. They were first found in the UK in 2006 and are now in London and parts of southeast England.

In late spring and summer, the caterpillars have thousands of tiny hairs that can cause itchy rashes, eye problems and sore throats – and very occasionally breathing difficulties. The caterpillars walk up and down trees in nose-to-tail processions.

If you find them, or spot one of their white silken nests, report it to the Forestry Commission or to your local council.

Read about dealing with caterpillar hairs for advice about what to do if you come into contact with these caterpillars.

Content Supplied by NHS Choices

Ant stings and bites

Find out how to treat an insect bite or sting, including how to remove stings or ticks, what you can do to relieve the symptoms and when to get medical advice.

Most insect bites will improve within a few hours or days and can be treated at home.

This page covers:

First aid for insect bites and stings

Removing a sting

Removing a tick

Dealing with caterpillar hairs

Relieving the symptoms of an insect bite or sting

When to get medical advice

When to get emergency help

First aid for insect bites and stings

To treat an insect bite or sting:

  • Remove the sting, tick or hairs if still in the skin (see below for advice about how to do this safely). 
  • Wash the affected area with soap and water.
  • Apply a cold compress (such as a flannel or cloth cooled with cold water) or an ice pack to any swelling for at least 10 minutes.
  • Raise or elevate the affected area if possible, as this can help reduce swelling.
  • Avoid scratching the area or bursting any blisters, to reduce the risk of infection – if your child has been bitten or stung, it may help to keep their fingernails short and clean.
  • Avoid traditional home remedies, such as vinegar and bicarbonate of soda, as they're unlikely to help.

The pain, swelling and itchiness can sometimes last a few days. See below for advice about how to relieve the symptoms of an insect bite or sting in the meantime.

Removing a sting

If you've been stung and the sting has been left in your skin, you should remove it as soon as possible to prevent any more venom being released.

Scrape it out sideways with something with a hard edge, such as a bank card, or your fingernails if you don't have anything else to hand.

Don't pinch the sting with your fingers or tweezers because you may spread the venom.

Removing a tick

If you've been bitten by a tick and it's still attached to your skin, remove it as soon as possible to reduce your risk of picking up illnesses such as Lyme disease.

To remove a tick:

  • Use a pair of fine-tipped tweezers or a tick removal tool (available from pet shops or vets).
  • Grip the tick as close to the skin as possible to ensure the tick's mouth isn't left in the skin.
  • Pull steadily away from the skin without twisting or crushing the tick
  • Wash your skin with water and soap afterwards, and apply an antiseptic cream to the skin around the bite.

Don't use a lit cigarette end, a match head or substances such as alcohol or petroleum jelly to force the tick out.

Dealing with caterpillar hairs

If a caterpillar of the oak processionary moth gets on your skin:

  • Use tweezers or a pen to remove it.
  • Try not to disturb it (for example, by brushing it with your hands) as it will then release more hairs.
  • Rinse your skin with running water, allow it to air dry and then use sticky tape to strip off any leftover hairs.
  • Use calamine, ice packs or a pharmacy remedy containing 3.5% ammonia to relieve the itch.
  • Remove all contaminated clothes and wash at as a high a temperature as the fabric allows.

Don't towel yourself dry after rinsing or use creams containing antihistamine.

Relieving the symptoms of an insect bite or sting

If you have troublesome symptoms after an insect bite or sting, the following treatments may help:

  • For pain or discomfort – take over-the-counter painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen (children under 16 years of age shouldn't be given aspirin).
  • For itching – ask your pharmacist about over-the-counter treatments, including crotamiton cream or lotion, hydrocortisone cream or ointment and antihistamine tablets.
  • For swelling – try regularly applying a cold compress or ice pack to the affected area, or ask your pharmacist about treatments such as antihistamine tablets.

See your GP if these treatments don't help. They may prescribe stronger medicines such as steroid tablets.

When to get medical advice

Contact your GP or call NHS 111 for advice if:

  • you're worried about a bite or sting
  • your symptoms don't start to improve within a few days or are getting worse
  • you've been stung or bitten in your mouth or throat, or near your eyes
  • a large area (around 10cm or more) around the bite becomes red and swollen – your GP may refer you to an allergy clinic for further tests or treatment (read about treating allergies)
  • you have symptoms of a wound infection, such as pus or increasing pain, swelling or redness – you may need antibiotics
  • you have symptoms of a more widespread infection, such as a fever, swollen glands and other flu-like symptoms

When to get emergency help

Dial 999 for an ambulance immediately if you or someone else has symptoms of a severe reaction, such as:

  • wheezing or difficulty breathing
  • a swollen face, mouth or throat
  • nausea or vomiting
  • a fast heart rate
  • dizziness or feeling faint
  • difficulty swallowing
  • loss of consciousness

Emergency treatment in hospital is needed in these cases.

Content Supplied by NHS Choices

Ant stings and bites

Find out about the basic precautions you can take to reduce your chances of being bitten or stung by an insect.

There are some simple precautions you can take to reduce your risk of being bitten or stung by insects.

It's particularly important to follow this advice if you've had a bad reaction to an insect bite or sting in the past or you're travelling to an area where there's a risk of picking up a serious illness.

This page covers:

Basic precautions to prevent insect bites and stings

Avoiding tick bites

Extra precautions when travelling abroad

Insect infestations

Basic precautions to prevent insect bites and stings

The following measures can help you avoid insect bites and stings:

  • Remain calm and move away slowly if you encounter wasps, hornets or bees – don't wave your arms around or swat at them.
  • Cover exposed skin – if you're outside at a time of day when insects are particularly active, such as sunrise or sunset, cover your skin by wearing long sleeves and trousers.
  • Wear shoes when outdoors.
  • Apply insect repellent to exposed skin – repellents that contain 50% DEET (diethyltoluamide) are most effective.
  • Avoid using products with strong perfumes, such as soaps, shampoos and deodorants – these can attract insects.
  • Be careful around flowering plants, rubbish, compost, stagnant water, and in outdoor areas where food is served.
  • Never disturb insect nests – if a nest is in your house or garden, arrange to have it removed (GOV.UK has details about pest control services and how your local council can help).
  • Avoid camping near water, such as ponds and swamps – mosquitoes and horseflies are commonly found near water.
  • Keep food and drink covered when eating or drinking outside, particularly sweet things – wasps or bees can also get into open drink bottles or cans you're drinking from.
  • Keep doors and windows closed or put thin netting or door beads over them to prevent insects getting inside the house – also keep the windows of your car closed to stop insects getting inside.

Avoiding tick bites

Ticks are small spider-like creatures that are mainly found in woodland and heath areas. They attach to your skin, suck your blood and can cause Lyme disease in some cases.

You can reduce your risk of being bitten by a tick if you:

  • Keep to footpaths and avoiding long grass when out walking.
  • Wear appropriate clothing in tick-infested areas (a long-sleeved shirt and trousers tucked into your socks).
  • Wear light-coloured fabrics that may help you spot a tick on your clothes.
  • Use insect repellent on exposed skin.
  • Inspect your skin for ticks, particularly at the end of the day, including your head, neck and skin folds (armpits, groin, and waistband).
  • Check your children's head and neck areas, including their scalp
    making sure ticks are not brought home on your clothes.
  • Check your pets to help ensure they don't bring ticks into your home in their fur.

It's important to remove any ticks you find as soon as possible. Find out how to safely remove a tick.

Extra precautions when travelling abroad

The risk of becoming seriously ill from an insect bite or sting in the UK is small, but in some parts of the world insects can carry serious diseases such as malaria and you need to be extra careful.

In addition to the precautions mentioned above, it can help to:

  • Find out what the risks are where you intend to travel – use the country guide on NHS Fit for Travel.
  • Check if you need any vaccinations before travelling – vaccines can prevent some illnesses spread by insects, such as yellow fever. Check NHS Fit for Travel for advice about specific destinations.
  • Speak to your GP about any extra precautions and medication you might need to take – for example, if you're visiting an area where there's a risk of malaria, you may be advised to bring a mosquito net and take antimalarial tablets to avoid malaria.

Read more about travel illnesses and vaccinations.

Insect infestations

If you've been bitten by fleas, mites or bedbugs, you may have an infestation in your home. Try to find the source of the infestation before taking steps to eliminate it.

Signs of an infestation

The following are signs of an infestation:

  • fleas or flea poo in your animal's fur or bedding
  • crusting on your dog's fur is a sign of fleas
  • excessive scratching and grooming are a sign of fleas in cats
  • dandruff (flakes of skin) on your cat or dog is a sign of mites
  • spots of blood on your bed sheets are a sign of bedbugs
  • an unpleasant almond smell is a sign of bedbugs

Speak to your vet if you're unsure whether your pet has fleas or mites.

Eliminating an infestation

Once you've identified the cause of the infestation, you'll need to eliminate it.

For flea infestations, treat the animal, its bedding, household carpets and soft furnishings with an insecticide. Thoroughly vacuum your carpets and soft furnishings.

For mite infestations, you should seek advice from your vet as aggressive treatment is required.

For bedbug infestations, your home will need to be thoroughly treated with an insecticide by a reputable pest control company. GOV.UK has details of details of pest control services and information about how your local council can help. 

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