Bites and stings

Insect and spider bites or jellyfish stings often cause mild skin reactions such as redness, slight swelling, itching and pain.

In New Zealand, common biting insects are bees, sandflies, fleas, mites, mosquitoes, spiders, wasps and bedbugs. Insect bites tend to be more common in the summer months.

Also in the summer months, people spend more time swimming in the ocean and are at risk of jellyfish stings. Read more about jellyfish stings

Insect bites and stings

An insect bite is usually a red, itchy bump. There may be a blister in the middle. Sometimes the bites can be painful. In most cases, insect bites go away on their own after a few days. Occasionally a blister or ulcer (break in the skin) may form, which takes longer to heal, especially if it becomes infected.¹ 

In rare cases, bee and wasp stings can cause a serious allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. This is potentially life-threatening and must be treated as a medical emergency. It requires immediate treatment and urgent medical attention – call 111.
Symptoms of anaphylaxis include:
  • swelling around the lips and eyes
  • rapid development of a rash
  • shortness of breath or wheezing
  • chest tightness
  • severe dizziness or faints
  • persistent sneezing or coughing
  • hoarse voice
  • difficulty swallowing or throat tightness
  • signs of shock such as pale skin, rapid heart beat and fainting
  • Read more about anaphylaxis

Home care

Scratching the bites or stings can cause the skin to break, leading to infection. Here are some tips to ease the itching and discomfort:

  • Keep the area cool by applying a cool, wet face towel or apply an ice pack (frozen peas in a tea towel or a sports icepack).
  • Apply aloe vera to soothe the bites.¹
  • Calamine preparations such as calamine lotion are often not effective and can cause dry skin.²  
  • If you have pain, try taking a painkiller such as paracetamol
  • Antihistamines such as cetirizine or loratadine may relieve itching and swelling. Read more about antihistamines.  A cream with hydrocortisone can reduce redness and swelling. You can get these from your pharmacy.³
  • Check and clean every day.
  • Keep your child's nails trimmed and clean.

Removing a  bee or wasp sting

If you've been stung and the sting has been left in your skin, you should remove it as soon as possible to prevent any more venom being released.³ 

  • Scrape it out sideways with something with a hard edge, such as a bank card, or your fingernails if you don't have anything else to hand.
  • Don't pinch the sting with your fingers or tweezers because you may spread the venom.
  • Wash the area with soap and cold water.
  • To relieve stinging use an anti-sting ointment such as Soov (unless the bite is near your eyes), a paste made of baking soda and cold water, or an ice cube for 20 minutes.

When to see a doctor?

Sometimes bites and stings can become infected and cause a skin infection called cellulitis. See your doctor if the bites and stings get worse such as:

  • The bites last more than 2 weeks.
  • The red, swollen area keeps getting bigger and more painful.
  • There is pus in the bite. 

Prevention

Insect bites can be prevented in some situations.

  • Treat pets for fleas. Fleas can also live in bedding, carpets and soft furnishings like sofas and cushions. Rugs and furniture should be thoroughly vacuumed.
  • If you're out and about and there is a chance of being bitten by insects like mosquitoes or sandflies, use an insect repellent before hand.
  • Cover up when stationary, particularly ankles and feet.
  • Put mosquito nets around beds, put insect screens on windows and close windows at night.
  • Burning a citronella candle will also help in a small area to deter sandflies.

Learn more

Insect bites Ministry of Health, New Zealand
Sandflies Ministry of Health, New Zealand
Bee and wasp stings Ministry of Health, New Zealand
Insect repellents DermNet New Zealand
Bites and Stings St Johns First Aid

References

  1. Insect bites Ministry of Health, New Zealand
  2. Topical local anaesthetics and antipruritics New Zealand Formulary
  3. Bee and wasp stings Ministry of Health, New Zealand
  4. Sandflies Ministry of Health, New Zealand
  5. Insect repellents DermNet New Zealand
  6. Bites and Stings St Johns First Aid
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Last reviewed: 11 Apr 2017