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Insect bite allergies

Red rash on leg caused by an insect bite
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Insect bites can happen when you’re enjoying the summer weather or travelling to a different country. While they can be uncomfortable or painful, insect bites are temporary and often go away by themselves. You can use over-the-counter treatment to manage the symptoms of more severe bites.

In this guide, we’ll discuss:

  • Types of bite reactions
  • What causes your body to react to insect bites and stings?
  • Types of insect bites and stings
  • Treatment for insect bites and stings
  • How to prevent insect bites and stings

Types of bite reactions

If you’ve been bitten by an insect, you may have a minor reaction or a more serious one. This depends on how your body reacts to the bite, which is difficult to predict. Most responses will be mild, with only a few symptoms that resolve after a few days.

Minor reactions

A minor allergic reaction will only occur around the insect bite area. Symptoms can include:

  • Swelling
  • Redness
  • Some pain
  • Itchiness

With a minor reaction, you’ll still feel like yourself but might find some irritation where the insect bit you. The symptoms of a mild response should disappear after about a week.

Local allergic reactions

A local allergic reaction will also stay around the insect bite area. For example, if you have an insect bite on your finger, you might get symptoms on your hand and your arm, but they won’t spread further than this.

The symptoms of a local allergic reaction include:

  • Urticaria (hives)
  • Redness or swelling
  • Watery eyes
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Intense itching

Local allergic reactions can be treated with over-the-counter medication. Symptoms should reduce after about a week, even if they still feel slightly uncomfortable.

Systemic allergic reaction

A systemic allergic reaction will spread to other parts of your body. You might still get rashes, urticaria or itching at the insect bite site, but you may also feel generally unwell.

Symptoms of a systemic allergic reaction include:

  • Nausea
  • Tummy ache
  • Wheezing

If you have asthma, your asthma symptoms may flare up with an allergic reaction. A systemic allergic reaction may be a sign of anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis requires emergency medical attention.


Anaphylaxis is considered a medical emergency. If you or someone you know has signs of anaphylaxis, contact 999 immediately.

Symptoms of anaphylaxis include:

  • Shortness of breath, fast breathing or wheezing
  • Feeling faint or dizzy
  • Clammy skin
  • Feeling sick
  • A fast heartbeat

Contact 999, even if you start to feel better.

What causes your body to react to insect bites and stings?

Your immune system is always alert to foreign substances that might harm your body. An insect bite or sting releases chemicals into your bloodstream, starting a chain reaction in your immune system.

This chain reaction can cause symptoms like inflammation, swelling or itchiness. These symptoms mean your body is working on getting rid of the harmful substance. A severe allergic reaction means your immune system is sensitive to that allergen and overreacting to its presence in your blood.

Medication can help you manage the symptoms as your immune system gradually eliminates the allergen.

Types of insect bites and stings

Not all insect bites and stings will look the same. You can still manage the symptoms of an insect bite even if you don’t know what’s bitten you.

You might be able to identify what insect bite you have by looking at the area on your skin.

Bee, wasp and hornet stings

Bee, wasp and hornet stings feel like short, sharp scratches when they occur. The stings leave a visible mark on your skin which might start to itch immediately. The sting mark can also feel painful.

The stinger might be left behind if you were stung by a bee. Remove the sting as soon as possible, but be careful not to pinch, as this can cause the venom to spread further into your body.

Image of a wasp sting on top of arm

Horsefly bites

A horsefly bite is usually more painful than other bites. The bite can cause the skin to become raised and red. The size may also be more significant than other insect bites. Horsefly bites can take longer to heal compared to other insect bites.

Person scratching horsefly bite on leg

Midge or gnat bites

Midge or gnat bites can cause small, itchy blisters to form across your skin. These blisters might be filled with fluid. Avoid popping the blisters, as this can leave them more open to infection.

Image of a midge bite on back of child's neck

Treatment for insect bites and stings

You can take some steps immediately after an insect bite to keep your symptoms mild:

  • Apply an ice pack or a cold compress to the affected area for 5 to 10 minutes
  • Raise the affected area
  • Rinse the bite or sting with fresh water

If a stinger is stuck on your skin, remove it carefully without pinching.

Over-the-counter products can help with the symptoms of an insect bite. For example, you might want to take antihistamines tablets to reduce itchiness. You can also apply cream or lotion such as Eurax to soothe itchy skin. Hydrocortisone cream can help reduce inflammation.

Speak to your pharmacist if you’re unsure what medications to take for an insect bite.

Keep in mind that it’s normal for the swelling to take a few days to go down. If the bite seems to be getting worse or you start to feel unwell, contact your doctor.

How to prevent insect bites and stings

You can take some steps to prevent getting insect bites when you’re outside(6):

  • Avoid going outdoors when insects are active or in areas of high insect activity
  • Wear clothing to cover up the skin, such as long sleeves or full-length trousers
  • Keep doors and windows closed
  • Stay calm around insects – lots of movement can agitate them
  • Try not to wear strong fragrances, as this can attract insects

If you’re going somewhere with many insects, you might want to wear insect repellent. Some insect repellents contain DEET (diethyltoluamide). DEET is an effective chemical used to repel insects. If you are sensitive to DEET, you can find DEET-free insect repellents that are just as effective.

A final note on insect bite allergies

Insect bites can be uncomfortable but are often easy to manage. Keep an eye out for the warning signs of any severe allergic reactions. If you’re travelling to an area with many insects, take the appropriate steps to avoid insect bites. This can include wearing insect repellent and choosing the right clothes.

Some countries have a high malaria prevalence, a disease spread by mosquitoes. You can take malaria prevention tablets to ensure you stay safe during your travels.

For advice on allergy management, explore our LloydsPharmacy skin blogs.

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