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Taking the pain out of insect bites 

Insect bites and stings are common and usually only cause minor irritation. However, some stings can be painful and trigger a serious allergic reaction.

In the UK, insects that bite include midges, mosquitoes, fleas, bedbugs and, although not strictly insects, spiders, mites and ticks, which are arachnids. Insects that sting include bees, wasps and hornets.

An insect bites you by making a hole in your skin to feed. Most insects sting as a defence by injecting venom into your skin.

Symptoms of an insect bite or sting

When an insect bites, it releases saliva that can cause the skin around the bite to become red, swollen and itchy.

The venom from a sting often also causes a swollen, itchy, red mark (a weal) to form on the skin. This can be painful, but it’s harmless in most cases. The affected area will usually remain painful and itchy for a few days.

The severity of bites and stings varies depending on the type of insect involved and the sensitivity of the person.

In rare cases, some people can have a serious allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) to a bite or sting that requires imme-diate medical treatment.

When to seek medical help

See your GP if you’ve been bitten or stung and there’s a lot of swelling and blistering or if there’s pus, which indi-cates an infection.

Dial the emergency service and ask for an ambulance if you experience any of these symptoms after a bite or sting: wheezing or difficulty breathing, nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea, a fast heart rate, dizziness or feeling faint, difficulty swallowing (dysphagia), confusion, anxiety or agitation.

Treating insect bites and stings

Most bites and stings are treated by washing the affected area with soap and water, then placing a cold compress (a flannel or cloth soaked in cold water) over the area to reduce swelling.

Try not to scratch the affected area to avoid infection. If you’re in pain or the area is swollen, take painkillers such as parace-tamol or ibuprofen.

If you have a more serious reaction, your GP may prescribe other medication or refer you to an allergy clinic for immunotherapy (desensitisation).