Bites and Stings

Family Health Diary

While ants, mossies, sand flies and fleas leave a temporary legacy of maddening itching, wasp and bee stings are usually extremely painful, and in some rare cases life-threatening.  A bite or sting injects venom into our skin, triggering a usually mild allergic response which causes some localised mild swelling and itching or stinging sensation, which usually passes in a matter of minutes or hours. Some people are far more sensitive to this venom, and stage a more severe allergic reaction which may include intense itching, leading to infection at the site; pronounced localised swelling and general feelings of malaise. A small percentage of people have a severe allergy to wasp and bee stings and may have an anaphylactic shock reaction with symptoms of facial swelling, swelling of the lips and throat, difficulty breathing, faintness, dizziness, rapid heartbeat, confusion, nausea, cramps and vomiting, and shock.

Prevention and Treatment

1. Take sensible precautions
If you are planning outdoors time, think ahead. Dress appropriately for the conditions. For example, mosquitoes come out at night most often, so ensure that you have long sleeves and trousers to put on at dusk. Use insect repellent. Cover food and drinks as these attract wasps and bees.

2. First-aid for minor insect bites
Bees leave their stinger embedded in the skin when they sting you, unlike wasps which can sting you repeatedly. Do not be tempted to pull the stinger out with your fingers as this could compress the venom sac and inject more poison into your skin, making the pain much worse. Instead use a straight-edged object such as a credit card to brush the stinger off.  Wash the area with soap and water, or just water. Apply a cold pack (or ice in a plastic bag with water) to ease pain and swelling. Oral antihistamine tablets can assist if there is a lot of redness and swelling but antihistamine creams should not be used due to the possibility of causing skin inflammation and dermatitis.

3. Homeopathic help
Homeopathic remedies are sometimes used to help soothe pain and swelling from insect bites and stings. If the stung area is swollen, bruised and painful, arnica and ledum may be able to help. If the area is hot and swollen, such as often occurs with bee and wasp stings, apis is a useful remedy.

4. Marine stings
In New Zealand we are lucky to have few marine stingers, and certainly none that will prove fatal. If you are stung, the pain of a sting is best treated with warm water such as in a shower, this being more effective than cold water or ice. If you are stung whilst in northern Australian waters by box jellyfish, vinegar is effective in neutralising the sting. Alas in New Zealand, if you use vinegar on some of our species (bluebottles, Portugese man-o-war) it can actually make the sting worse.  More importantly, if there are any signs of systemic distress such as breathing difficulty, seek medical assistance immediately.

5. Animal bites
In New Zealand we are fortunate to have no dangerous native animals and the greatest danger from bites is posed by our domestic animals and fellow humans. If you are bitten by an animal, clean the wound with water and cover with a clean dressing. If the bite is on a limb, especially your hand or foot, and more so if the bite is from a fellow human, seek medical treatment as this could likely lead to bacterial infection and antibiotic treatment may be required.

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