Be sting aware

9 July 2019

For most of us, while a sting can be painful and unpleasant, it’s pretty harmless and a minor irritation. But some people are allergic to stings and for them the consequences can be very serious.

A warm and rainy summer can create the perfect breeding ground for a host of biting and stinging insects, including mosquitoes, horseflies and midges.

There are a number of insects in the UK that will bite or sting. These include:

  • Bees
  • Wasps
  • Gnats
  • Mosquitoes
  • Midges
  • Flies
  • Fleas
  • Bedbugs
  • Hornets
  • Ticks
  • Horseflies.

If you are abroad, you could add some other species to this list, including jellyfish, scorpions, snakes and spiders. It’s worth checking what critters live in the country you’re travelling to before you go.

Bites and stings

A bite will leave a puncture wound in your skin, as will a sting. Stinging insects can leave behind saliva or venom and sometimes the “stinger” itself. If this is the case, you should remove the stinger from your skin by scraping it carefully from the side with the edge of your fingernail, says the NHS.

Bites and stings will cause some redness, discomfort, itching and swelling. This usually gets better within a couple of days without any treatment, but you may want to use a cold compress or flannel on the affected area and take an antihistamine tablet to help ease the symptoms in the meantime.

If you have a severe allergy though, you will need urgent medical care.

When you are allergic, your whole body can react within minutes to the bite or sting in a very strong way.
 
Your skin becomes itchy and blotchy or red, and you may get swelling of your lips, face, tongue and throat. This can lead to something doctors call anaphylactic shock, which is a medical emergency.
 
If you suspect that you or someone else is experiencing anaphylaxis, call 999.
 
The NHS says there are many warning signs and symptoms to watch out for, including:

  • Generalised redness of the skin or a blotchy or itchy rash anywhere on the body
  • Swelling of the face, tongue, throat or airways
  • Wheezing or shortness of breath
  • Tummy pain or cramps and feeling sick
  • A sense of impending doom
  • Fast heart rate
  • Feeling light-headed or faint
  • Collapsing or fainting.

If the person has had a similar reaction in the past they may have an alert badge with them and an adrenalin pen, which they would typically self-administer. If they’re unable to do so it’s important that you let the 999 call operator and/or attending medics know. We would recommend against administering an Epipen to someone else unguided because there are risks attached. However, if it’s deemed medically appropriate for you to do so,  instructions on how to use these auto-injectors are on the side of each device.
 
While you're waiting for the ambulance to arrive, keep an eye on the person’s pulse and breathing. If either stop, start resuscitation – chest compressions and rescue breaths.
 
If you have not been trained in CPR or are worried about giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a stranger, you should focus your efforts chest compression-only (or hands-only) CPR. The NHS advises people to:

  1. Place the heel of your hand on the breastbone at the centre of the person’s chest. Place your other hand on top of your first hand and interlock your fingers.
  2. Using your body weight (not just your arms), press straight down by 5-6cm on their chest.
  3. Repeat this until an ambulance arrives.

Try to give 100 chest compressions a minute.

Stay safe

If you know that you're allergic to insect bites or stings, here are some simple tips from Allergy UK to help you stay safe:

  • Wear a Medic Alert bracelet or medallion. This will have details of the allergy and treatment required. Make sure you carry an adrenalin pen if you need one.
  • Inform teachers/work colleagues and occupational health advisors of your insect allergy and treatment required.
  • Do not drink out of cans (beer or soft drinks), as wasps can crawl inside cans. You may not see it as you put the can to your lips.
  • Avoid walking barefoot on grass, especially if clover is present.
  • Don't pick up fallen fruit, the side you cannot see may have a wasp in it.
  • Get professional help if there is a wasps' nest in or near your home.
  • Cover exposed skin by wearing long sleeves and trousers.
  • Apply insect repellent.
  • If you do encounter wasps, hornets or bees, move away slowly without panicking. Don’t wave your arms around or swat at them.

Visit our Allergies centre for more information on insect bites and other allergies, or if you have a question of your own, about an allergy or any other health matter, our Health at Hand team are here to help.

Call us on 0800 003 004 at any time of the day or night, 365 days a year. Or submit your query online using our Ask the expert service and one of our team will get back to you within a couple of days.