Summer sting: How to treat insect bites

When you are outdoors this summer, beware the humble bee and a host of other critters. Their bites or stings can trigger serious reactions.

Every summer, thousands of Australians are stung by a bee or wasp.

Others are bitten by a spider or snake or stung by a jellyfish – but it’s bees and wasps that are the most common cause for complaint.

Last year, University of Melbourne research found bees and wasps caused more than a third of hospital admissions for bites and stings.

Spider bites accounted for 30 per cent of hospital visits, while snake bites made up around 15 per cent.

The study also found that in 13 years, almost half of Australians who had died from an allergic reaction and anaphylactic shock due to an insect had been stung by a bee or wasp.

The researchers believe one reason anaphylaxis from insect bites and stings may be so deadly – particularly from bees – is that people see bees as relatively harmless and don’t seek medical attention.

Common bites and stings in Australia

During summer, the most common bites and stings come from ants, bees, wasps, redbacks, huntsman, white tails, scorpions, centipedes, leeches, ticks, snakes and marine creatures such as box jellyfish, says Victorian Poisons Information Centre manager Jeff Robinson.

People living in northern Australia are at greater risk of being stung by a box jellyfish or an Irukandji jellyfish, while Sydneysiders are more likely to be bitten by a funnel web spider.

“Be vigilant in your environment,” says Jeff.

“Take care to avoid ant nests or swarms of bees. If you see a snake, leave it alone. It’s common to find redback spiders living in dark, quiet places so wearing gloves may help avoid a bite.”

insect bites

What to do if you’re stung or bitten

By a snake or a blue-ringed octopus

Apply a pressure bandage and use the pressure immobilisation technique to slow the spread of venom.

Bandage the wound firmly but not so it causes numbness or tingling.

If you don’t have a bandage, use clothing or a towel. Keep the affected limb still.

By a bee, wasp or spider

Remove the sting by scraping a fingernail across it.

“Wash the bite area with soap and water, apply a cold pack and take paracetamol or ibuprofen for pain and swelling,” says Jeff.

“An antihistamine can help if there’s significant swelling or itch.”

Use this technique for fish or jellyfish stings, and ant, centipede or scorpion bites, too.

When to call an ambulance

Call an ambulance if the patient begins breathing noisily or wheezing, if their tongue swells, they have tightness in the throat, difficulty talking or a hoarse voice, persistent dizziness and/or collapse.

For treatment advice call the Poisons Information Centre on 131 126.

Scared of snakes, bees or other bugs? Find out how to conquer your fears.

Written by Sarah Marinos