Insect bites and stings: First aid

Most insect bites and stings are mild and can be treated at home. They might cause itching, swelling and stinging that go away in a day or two. Some bites or stings can transmit disease-causing bacteria, viruses or parasites. Stings from bees, yellow jackets, wasps, hornets and fire ants might cause a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis).

For mild reactions

To treat a mild reaction to an insect bite or sting:

  • Move to a safe area to avoid more bites or stings.
  • Remove any stingers.
  • Gently wash the area with soap and water.
  • Apply a cloth dampened with cold water or filled with ice to the area of the bite or sting for 10 to 20 minutes. This helps reduce pain and swelling.
  • If the injury is on an arm or leg, raise it.
  • Apply to the affected area calamine lotion, baking soda paste, or 0.5% or 1% hydrocortisone cream. Do this several times a day until your symptoms go away.
  • Take an anti-itch medicine (antihistamine) by mouth to reduce itching. Options include nonprescription cetirizine, fexofenadine (Allegra Allergy, Children's Allegra Allergy), loratadine (Claritin).
  • Take a nonprescription pain reliever as needed.

Seek medical care if the swelling gets worse, the site shows signs of infection or you don't feel well.

When to seek emergency care

Call 911 or your local medical emergency number if a child is stung by a scorpion or if anyone is having a serious reaction that suggests anaphylaxis, even if it's just one or two signs or symptoms:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Swelling of the lips, face, eyelids or throat
  • Dizziness, fainting or unconsciousness
  • A weak and rapid pulse
  • Hives
  • Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea

Take these actions immediately while waiting for medical help:

  • Ask whether the injured person is carrying an epinephrine autoinjector (EpiPen, Auvi-Q, others). Ask whether you should help inject the medication. This is usually done by pressing the autoinjector against the thigh and holding it in place for several seconds.
  • Loosen tight clothing and cover the person with a blanket.
  • Don't offer anything to drink.
  • If needed, position the person to prevent choking on vomit.

Last Updated Mar 18, 2022


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