It’s vacation time and we’re spending more time outdoors. This means we are exposed to the more annoying and painful aspects of summer – insect bites and stings.
There are many products available at the local pharmacy to treat this. Some treat the initial bite or sting, others treat the itchy aftermath.
What about natural remedies? Few studies have actually looked at them. But if they work for you and don’t irritate already inflamed skin, then it probably can’t hurt to keep going.
Read more: Buzz, Buzz, Slap! Why flying can be so annoying
Why do insects bite and sting?
When insects bite and sting, they either defend themselves or need something from us (like blood).
Regardless of your motivation, you may experience a painful or itchy reaction, sometimes a severe allergic reaction, or even a debilitating illness.
While insects sometimes get a bad rap, there are relatively few that actually pose serious threats to our health.
Many types of flies, particularly mosquitoes, bite. In most cases, they need blood for nutrition or egg development. The method of “biting” can vary between different types of flies. While mosquitoes inject a needle-like tube to suck our blood, others chew or scratch our skin.
While researchers have studied what happens when mosquitoes bite, there’s still a lot to learn about how to treat the bites.
Avoiding mosquito bites is therefore particularly important as some can transmit pathogens that make us sick.
Read more: Do you feel like a Mozzie magnet? It’s true – mosquitoes prefer to bite some people than others
A / Prof Cameron Webb
Fleas, lice, mites and ticks
There are many other insects (like bed bugs, fleas, lice) and other arthropods (like mites, ticks) that bite.
However, it is difficult to determine which insect bit us based on the bite response alone. This is generally because different people react differently to the injected saliva when they start sucking our blood.
Bees, wasps, ants
Then there are stinging insects like bees, wasps and ants. These usually just defend themselves.
In addition to being painful, the venom they inject when stabbing can cause potentially serious allergic reactions.
What’s the best way to handle a sting or bite?
If you have potentially severe allergic reactions from bites or stings, seek appropriate medical treatment immediately. But for many other people, it is the initial painful reaction and itchy aftermath that requires attention.
Despite the frequency of insect bites, there is surprisingly little formal research on how best to treat them. Most of the research is focused on insect-borne diseases.
Even recommended treatments have little evidence that they actually work. Instead, the recommendations are based on expert opinion and clinical experience.
For example, health officials are promoting some general advice on treating insect bites and stings. This includes the use of pain relievers (such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen). They also recommend applying a cold compress (such as an ice pack soaked in cold water, ice, or a damp cloth) to the area of the sting or bite to reduce inflammation and ease some discomfort.
There is also specific advice on handling stings and removing ticks.
However, if you don’t do anything, the discomfort from the bite or sting will subside after a few days. The body recovers quickly, just like a cut or bruise.
If you continue to experience pain for more than a few days or if you have any signs of an allergic reaction, see a doctor.
What about the itch?
As soon as the initial pain subsides, the itching begins. This is because the body reacts to the saliva that is injected when insects bite.
For many people, this is incredibly frustrating and all too easy to get caught up in a cycle of itching and scratching.
In some cases, medications such as corticosteroid creams or antihistamines can help relieve itching. You can buy these at the pharmacy.
Then there is calamin lotion, a mainstay in many Australian households that is used to treat the itchiness caused by insect bites. However, there are few studies to show that this works.
Read more: Are itchy insect bites more likely to make us sick?
Do Home Remedies Work?
If you’re looking for a home remedy to treat insect bites and the itchy itching that comes with them, a quick internet search will keep you busy for days.
Possible home remedies include: tea bags, banana, tea tree or other essential oils, a paste made from baking soda, vinegar, aloe vera, oatmeal, honey and even onions.
There is little evidence for this work. But not many have actually been scientifically rated.
Tea tree oil is one of the few. While it is said to help treat skin reactions, the oil itself can cause skin reactions if not used as directed.
However, if a home remedy works for you and doesn’t cause additional irritation, there may be no harm in using it if you get relief.
With so much uncertainty about how to treat insect bites and stings, it may be best if we avoid exposure at all. There are many insect repellants available at your local pharmacy or supermarket that will do this safely and effectively.