Overview - Insect bites and stings

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)
  • spread serious illnesses such as Lyme disease and malaria

Bugs that bite or sting include:

  • wasps
  • hornets
  • bees
  • horseflies
  • ticks
  • mosquitoes
  • fleas
  • bedbugs
  • spiders
  • midges

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. A larger area of skin around the bite or sting becomes swollen, red and painful. This should pass within a week.

Sometimes a severe allergic reaction can happen. This can cause breathing difficulties, dizziness and a swollen face or mouth. This needs immediate medical treatment.

Read more about symptoms of 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
  • wash the affected area with soap and water
  • apply a cold compress, such as a 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 medicines that can help. For example painkillers, creams for itching and antihistamines.

Read more about treating insect bites and stings

Non-urgent advice: Contact your GP if:

  • you're worried about a bite or sting
  • your symptoms do not 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 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 high temperature, swollen glands and other flu-like symptoms

Immediate action required: Dial 999 or 112 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
  • feeling sick or being sick
  • 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
  • avoid using products with strong perfumes, such as soaps, shampoos and deodorants – these can attract insects
  • be careful around flowers, rubbish, stagnant water, and in areas where food is served

You may need to take extra precautions if you're travelling overseas. For example, you may be advised to take antimalarial tablets to help prevent malaria.

Read more about preventing insect bites and stings


Content supplied by the NHS and adapted for Ireland by the HSE

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This project has received funding from the Government of Ireland’s Sláintecare Integration Fund 2019 under Grant Agreement Number 123.

Page last reviewed: 25 March 2021
Next review due: 25 March 2024