Insect stings often cause minor swelling, redness, pain, and itching. Most bites and stings will heal on their own without a visit to a doctor. There are several things you can do to relieve pain and itching and prevent infection from a bite or sting.
After a sting
After you are stung, try to move away from the stinging insect. Bees will alert other bees, making them more likely to sting. Remain as calm and quiet as possible. Movement will increase the spread of venom in your bloodstream.
It is important to remove the stinger as quickly as possible after a sting. Even a delay of a second or two in removing the stinger is likely to increase the amount of venom you receive. In less than 20 seconds after a sting, 90% of the venom is injected into your body.
To quickly remove the stinger:
- Flick the stinger out with your finger.
- Scrape it out with something that is immediately available, like a stiff piece of paper, butter knife, or credit card. Don't waste time trying to find something special.
If you have been stung on the arm or leg, lower the limb at the time of the sting to slow the spread of venom. Hours later, if swelling is present, you can elevate the limb to help reduce swelling.
Relieving pain, itching, and swelling
Apply an ice pack to a bite or sting for 15 to 20 minutes once an hour for the first 6 hours. Always keep a cloth between your skin and the ice pack, and press firmly against all the curves of the affected area. Do not apply ice for longer than 15 to 20 minutes at a time, and do not fall asleep with the ice on your skin.
When not using ice, keep a cool, wet cloth on the bite or sting for up to 6 hours.
After the first 6 hours, if swelling is not present, try applying warmth to the site for comfort.
Try a nonprescription medicine for the relief of itching, redness, and swelling.
- An antihistamine taken by mouth, such as a nondrowsy one like loratadine (Claritin) or one that might make you sleepy like diphenhydramine (Benadryl), may help relieve itching, redness, and swelling. Don't give antihistamines to your child unless you've checked with the doctor first.
- A spray of local anesthetic containing benzocaine, such as Solarcaine, may help relieve pain. If your skin reacts to the spray, stop using it.
- Hydrocortisone cream or calamine lotion applied to the skin may help relieve itching and redness. Note: Do not use the cream on children younger than age 2 unless your doctor tells you to. Do not use in the rectal or vaginal area in children younger than age 12 unless your doctor tells you to.
When using nonprescription medicines, be sure to follow all labels and instructions.
- Carefully read and follow all label directions on the medicine bottle and box.
- Take, but do not exceed, the maximum recommended doses.
- Don't take a medicine if you have had an allergic reaction to it in the past.
- If you have been told to avoid a medicine, call your doctor before taking it.
- If you are pregnant or trying to become pregnant, call your doctor before taking any medicine.
- Do not give aspirin to anyone younger than 20 because of the risk of Reye syndrome.
Current as of: November 9, 2022
Author: Healthwise Staff
William H. Blahd Jr. MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
H. Michael O'Connor MD - Emergency Medicine