Bites and stings: self-care

General Information

Bites and stings can cause mild irritation or more serious reactions, such as a life-threatening allergy (known as anaphylaxis).

Most people are not allergic to insect bites or stings, but if they experience symptoms of allergic reaction, they need urgent medical attention.

See Your Pharmacist or Medical Professional

Seek urgent medical advice if you have any of the following symptoms after a bite or sting:

  • you feel unwell and are dizzy or vomiting
  • you have significant swelling, especially in your face, eyes, lips, tongue or neck
  • if you have a fever, wheezing, tight chest, difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • if you have had severe reactions before

See your pharmacist or medical professional:

  • if the skin around your bite is red or swollen or the skin reaction spreads
  • if you are stung by spiny marine creatures or have an open wound
  • if the bite looks infected, with pain, blisters, pus or crusting
  • if you are pregnant or breastfeeding; some medicines may not be suitable
  • if you have other medical conditions, such as asthma, or take other medicines
  • if you have allergies to any medicines
  • if the person with the bite or sting is a young child

Treatment Tips

  • contact the Poisons Information Centre (131 126) immediately if you are bitten by a spider. They are open 24 hours a day, every day
  • most insect bites and stings are not serious
  • clean the area with water, gentle soap or disinfectant and apply antiseptic cream; do not use vinegar or methylated spirits
  • check for and remove stings or tentacles from the skin
  • wash jellyfish stings with sea water to flush off tentacles
  • apply an ice pack for 10 to 20 minutes to cool the skin, relieve pain and swelling
  • always wrap ice in a towel to protect skin; do not use ice on hands or feet
  • bluebottle stings: do NOT wash with vinegar which will make the tentacles discharge more venom 
  • bluebottle stings: hot water is more effective at reducing pain than ice packs (45 degrees Celsius - no hotter than is tolerable - for 20 minutes)
  • in tropical north of Australia, if you can't identify a jellyfish sting as coming from a harmless jellyfish or bluebottle, then treat with vinegar and call for medical help
  • Vinegar stops box jellyfish and Irukandjii releasing more venom
  • if you are bitten by a bee or wasp, do not push the sting that pierces your skin, as it could release more venom. Instead, gently remove it by pushing it out from the sides; a fingernail or blunt knife can help
  • if you react badly to bites or stings, such as from bees, cover up your body to avoid them or use insect repellent
  • if you have a severe allergy, carry an EpiPen (a PHARMACIST ONLY product) and wear a medical alert bracelet (such as Medic-Alert); ask your doctor for more information

Advice for avoiding mosquito bites

  • try not to go outside at dusk and dawn when mosquitoes are most active
  • wear densely woven, light-coloured clothing and spray insect repellent on exposed parts of the body if going outside
  • use a bed net while sleeping
  • avoid wearing perfumed products
  • if you are going overseas to a country where mosquito-borne illnesses (e.g. malaria, Dengue fever) are common, higher-strength insect repellents may be necessary, as well as malaria tablets. Talk to your pharmacist or doctor

Treatment Options

  • talk to a health professional before taking pain relievers, unless you have been stung by a common insect that is not poisonous, such as a bee, or you do not have allergies
  • people with skin reactions to stings and bites should keep oral antihistamines with them to take as soon as they are stung
  • some products should not be applied to open wounds or extensive areas of skin; see product directions
  • caution is needed with some products during pregnancy; check with your pharmacist

Oral antihistamines

  • skin reactions occur when the body releases histamine, leading to swelling and itching
  • antihistamines block the action of histamine and relieve itching. There are two main types:
    • older, sedating antihistamines that cause drowsiness
    • newer, non-sedating antihistamines that do not typically cause drowsiness
  • although antihistamines can reduce your reaction, the bite mark may last longer
  • oral antihistamines treat multiple bites and stings more effectively than having to apply topical preparations all over the body

Older sedating antihistamines

[PHARMACIST ONLY]
e.g. dexchlorpheniramine (Polaramine), promethazine (Phenergan, Sandoz Fenezal)

  • these products may help if the itch is severe and interferes with your sleep
  • these products can cause drowsiness, sometimes even the next day, so it is important you do not drive or operate machinery and you avoid alcohol
  • these products are not recommended in infants under two years old (a prescription is needed for this age group); check product directions for other age groups
  • sedating antihistamines are not suitable for everyone; check with your pharmacist
  • if you have other medical conditions, such as glaucoma, epilepsy or prostate problems, or you take antidepressants, check with your pharmacist before taking

Newer non-sedating antihistamines

[PHARMACY ONLY]
e.g. cetirizine (ZepAllergy, Zilarex, Zyrtec), desloratadine (Aerius, Claramax), fexofenadine (Fexal, Fexotabs, Telfast), loratadine (Alledine, Claratyne, Guardian Loratadine, Lorano, Lorapaed)

  • non-sedating antihistamines may rarely cause drowsiness; do not drive or operate machinery if you are affected

Anti-itch and healing/soothing preparations

[GENERAL SALE]
e.g. Bepanthen creams, Calamine Lotion, Eurax, Pinetarsol, Stingose, Ungvita, SoloSite Gel

  • these products soothe skin irritations and promote healing
  • tar products help relieve skin itching but can discolour clothes
  • calamine lotion has a soothing, cooling effect but it may dry skin, so avoid it if you have eczema
  • an alternative option that is not drying to the skin is SoloSite Gel
  • Stingose may reduce the reaction to stings

Topical steroids

[PHARMACY ONLY]
e.g. hydrocortisone 0.5% (DermAid Cream (0.5%))

[PHARMACIST ONLY]
e.g. hydrocortisone 1% (DermAid Cream (1%))

  • hydrocortisone products help relieve itch and redness of bites and stings
  • apply thinly to skin once or twice a day and wash hands afterwards
  • avoid contact with eyes
  • use short-term, up to one week, and seek medical advice if reaction does not improve or gets worse

Local anaesthetics

[GENERAL SALE]
e.g. Lignocaine (Paraderm Plus, Soov Cream)

  • also contains an anti-inflammatory and antiseptic agent
  • avoid use on broken skin

[PHARMACY ONLY]
e.g. lignocaine (Soov Bite, Paxyl, Lanacane C)

  • local anaesthetic products numb pain and may relieve the initial sharp pain of stings
  • many also contain an antiseptic to prevent infection
  • not suitable if you have eczema
  • generally applied every two to three hours

Insect repellents

[GENERAL SALE]
e.g. Aeroguard range, Bushman's range, Rid range

  • avoid heavy use of chemical repellents, such as N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide (DEET), in children and during pregnancy
  • natural insect repellents, such as citronella oil and oil of lemon eucalyptus, are effective but need frequent application

More Information

For poisons information call the Poisons Information Centre on 131 126 (24 hour service).

Availability of medicines

  • GENERAL SALE available through pharmacies and possibly other retail outlets.
  • PHARMACY ONLY available for sale through pharmacies only.
  • PHARMACIST ONLY may only be sold by a pharmacist.

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Last Reviewed: 25 September 2009
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