Mosquito Bites and Stings
Most stings from bees, wasps and hornets cause pain and slight swelling but have little other effect. However, some people are allergic to stings and can develop reactions that can be life-threatening. Call an ambulance immediately if you suspect an allergic reaction soon after being stung. If you are stung by a bee and the stinger remains in the skin, scrape out the stinger as quickly as possible. Do not pluck it out as this may squeeze more venom into the skin.
Insect bites (not stings) rarely cause serious allergic reactions but can cause small itchy lumps to appear on the skin. Itch may be eased by a soothing ointment, antihistamine tablets, or steroid cream. Some insects infest pets, furniture, etc and can cause repeated bites.
Insects, stings and bites
- Stinging insectsthat are common in the UK include wasps, bees and hornets. The sting is due to venom (like a poison) which the insect ‘injects’ into the skin.
- Biting insectsthat are common in the UK include midges, gnats, mosquitoes, flies, fleas, mites, ticks and bedbugs.
What may happen after an mosquito sting or bite?
A small local skin reaction – most cases
Most people will be familiar with the common local skin reactions caused by insects.
- An insect sting– typically causes an intense, burning pain. This is quickly followed by a patch of redness and a small area of swelling (up to 1 cm) around the sting. This usually eases and goes within a few hours.
- An insect bite– you may not notice the bite (although some can be quite painful, particularly from a horsefly). However, saliva from the insect can cause a skin reaction such as:
- Irritationand itch over the site of the bite.
- A small itchy lump (papule)which may develop up to 24 hours after a bite. This typically lasts for several days before fading away. Sometimes some redness (inflammation) surrounds each papule.
- A whealis a red, slightly raised mark on the skin which is often itchy but temporary. It may develop immediately after being bitten. A wheal lasts about two hours but is often followed by a small itchy solid lump which develops up to 24 hours later. This can last for several days before fading away.
Occasionally, small skin reactions following an insect bite persist for weeks or months. A persistent skin reaction is particularly likely following a tick bite. Severe allergic reactions (described below) are rare after insect bites – they are more common after insect stings.
A localised allergic skin reaction – occurs in some cases
Some people have an allergic reaction to the venom in a sting. A localised reaction causes swelling at the site of the sting. This becomes larger over several hours and then gradually goes away over a few days. The size of the swelling can vary but can become many centimetres across. The swelling may even extend up an entire arm or leg. The swelling is not dangerous unless it affects your airway. However, if it is severe, the skin may break out in blisters.
A generalised (systemic) allergic reaction – rare but serious
The venom can cause your immune system to react more strongly. This may cause one or more of the following:
- Itchy skin in many parts of the body, followed by an itchy blotchy rash that can appear anywhere on the body.
- Swelling of your face which may extend to the lips, tongue, throat and upper airway.
- A sense of impending doom.
- Tummy (abdominal) cramps and feeling sick.
- Dilation of the blood vessel, which can cause:
- General redness of your skin.
- A fast heart rate.
- Low blood pressure, which can make you feel faint or even cause you to collapse.
- Wheezing or difficulty in breathing due to an asthma attack or throat swelling.
A generalised reaction will usually develop within 10 minutes of a sting. It can be fairly mild – for example, a generalised itchy rash and some mild facial swelling.
In some cases it is severe and life-threatening – for example, severe difficulty breathing and collapse. This severe reaction is called anaphylaxis and without quick treatment you would soon become unconscious. A small number of people die every year as a result of this kind of severe reaction, usually because they do not obtain treatment quickly enough. If you think you are having an anaphylactic reaction you need to call an ambulance straightaway and obtain immediate medical help.
If you have many bee or wasp stings at the same time, this can also cause serious illness. This is usually directly due to the high dose of venom, rather than to an allergy.
Occasionally, a skin infection develops following a bite, particularly if you scratch a lot, which can damage the skin and allow germs (bacteria) to get in. Infection causes redness and tenderness around the bite. Over a period of several days, this may spread and, sometimes, can become serious.
Most insects in the UK do not transmit other diseases. The main exception is a type of tick which carries a germ called Borrelia burgdorferi which causes Lyme disease. If this germ gets into your skin it can travel to various parts of your body and cause inflammation of the joints (arthritis), inflammation of the tissues around the brain (meningitis) and other problems. See separate leaflet called Lyme Disease for more details. In hot countries, mosquito bites transmit certain germs which can cause diseases such as malaria.
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