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Bites and stings

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Most insect bites and stings are not poisonous but the bites of some insects such as wasps, bees and some spiders can be harmful. If a child is bitten and it is possible to save the insect, this may help with treatment it if is poisonous.

Contents

In summer weather especially there are many biting insects around. There are some things you can do to help avoid your children being bitten but in spite of this, bites often happen and you need to be prepared. Most insect bites and stings are not poisonous but the bites of some insects such as wasps, bees and some spiders can be harmful. If a child is bitten and it is possible to save the insect, this may help with treatment it if is poisonous. There are several other topics about bites, including Snake bites, Spider bites, Mosquito bites and Bed bugs.

What are bites and stings?

  • Stings are used by some insects such as bees and wasps to protect themselves. They inject a painful poison into a person's skin through their stinger. When bees sting they leave the stinger with the poison pouch attached in the skin of the person who has been stung, so more poison can keep going into the skin until it is all gone or the stinger is removed.
  • Some insects feed on blood from animals or people. Bites from these insects are usually not poisonous, eg mosquitoes, fleas, lice, bed bugs.
  • Some biting insects can spread some diseases such as Ross River Virus, encephalitis and malaria.
  • Note: HIV/AIDS has not been transmitted by biting insects.

Alert!

Some children will have a severe reaction to a bite or sting. The severe allergic reaction is called anaphylaxis.  It is very rare but it has caused some people to die. 

If a child is having a severe reaction, use the child's Epipen (if available) and call the emergency service (000 in Australia). They will be able to give you advice over the phone, and come to your help if necessary. Always get medical help as soon as possible after using an Epipen. The effects wear off in about 15 minutes and the child may need another injection of adrenaline.

Symptoms of insect bites and stings

  • Poisonous stings and bites mostly cause pain where the bite is. There is a red and swollen area around the bite.
  • Non poisonous bites usually only cause pain and swelling around the bite at first, followed later by itching. They do not usually cause reactions away from the area of the bite unless the bite becomes infected by scratching.
  • Allergic reactions can be caused by some insects (bees, wasps and jumper ants). 
    • Common symptoms include hives, itching, stomach cramps, coughing, wheezing, difficulty breathing and swallowing, and fainting. 
    • The most dangerous symptoms are breathing difficulties or drop in blood pressure (shock).  Either of these can be fatal.  Anaphylaxis is rare, but may be preventable and is treatable if responded to quickly.
    • A child who has severe reactions to bite or stings may need to carry an Epipen (a syringe containing adrenaline). Anyone who cares for that child (eg at school or child care) needs to know how to use it.

Treatment of insect bites and stings

  • Wash the bite.
  • A cold pack or ice pack can help with pain and swelling from bites.
  • Rest and raise an arm or leg that has been stung to help stop swelling.
  • Anti-histamines may help reduce itchiness and other local symptoms (eg swelling) if needed - ask your chemist.
  • Paracetamol can help with pain (see the topic 'Using paracetamol or ibuprofen').
  • See a doctor for local reactions if the pain is very strong and/or does not settle down within a few hours, or if there are any reactions away from where the bite is.
  • If there is pus or the local reaction gets worse after 24 hours see your doctor.

Bee sting

  • Remove the stinger. Do not pull it out as this causes more venom to be injected. Use a blunt knife (or similar object) to scrape the stinger out.
  • For most people there will be pain and some swelling where the sting occurred.  Ice or a cold pack usually eases the pain and the pain lasts a few hours or less.
  • If your child has a more severe reaction, see a doctor to work out what to do next time.
  • If there is a severe reaction, get help from an emergency service (in Australia, dial 000). 

Insect repellents

  • If necessary, children's clothing can be soaked in insect repellent.
  • Use insect repellent containing 10% to 20% DEET (diethyl toluamide) or picardin on the skin, where it is not covered by clothing. Most personal spray or roll-on insect repellents from your supermarket or chemist are about this strength. Check the label or ask the chemist if unsure.
  • Test on a small area of skin first to be sure there is no reaction.
  • Avoid using repellents on babies and toddlers. Keep them inside if there are biting insects outside.
  • Wash off insect repellent before going to bed unless there are still mosquitoes around.
  • Keep repellent away from eyes and mouth and any parts of the hands that may touch eyes and mouth.
  • Do not use more insect repellent than you need - it should last 4-6 hours, depending on what you are doing (eg swimming washes it off and you may need to apply it more often).
  • Household insect sprays and electric vaporisers containing pyrethrin are safe for children (when sprayed into the air, not onto the skin).

 European wasps

  • European wasps are black and yellow with colourless wings that fold alongside the body. They are about the same size as bees, but bees are more orange in colour, and bees do not fold their wings.
  • Native wasps look different and are not environmental pests although they can sting.
  • Native wasps build their nests using mud, while European wasps build their nests of paper-like material.
  • European wasp nests are always in dark places such as underground or inside walls.
  • Nests of native paper wasps are also built of paper-like material but are out where you can see them, in trees or under the eaves of houses.
  • Sweet foods and meats attract European wasps to picnic areas, barbecues and school yards. They may crawl into the openings of soft drink cans and bottles.

European Wasp stings

  • The biggest danger from European wasps is when their nests are disturbed. Children should be warned not to disturb their nests.
  • A European wasp can sting many times, not just once like a bee.
  • Wasp stings cause very painful red lumps which can be several centimetres across. After a few days the site becomes itchy. It usually gets better after a week or so.
  • To reduce the pain from a sting apply ice.
  • Wasps are attracted to food and drinks. If they are not noticed, they can sting a person in the mouth or throat which can cause breathing problems. 
  • Drinking from glass containers not straight from a can and using a straw lessens the risk of swallowing a wasp.
  • If stung in the mouth or throat, or if there is a reaction in any part of the body away from the sting, or if there are a lot of stings get medical treatment urgently.

Prevention and control of European Wasps

  • Many councils have pest control officers. Call them before you try to kills the wasps as disturbing a nest can be dangerous, especially if the nest is not easy to get to.
  • Single wasps can be destroyed with insect spray.
  • Nests can be found in the daytime by following the wasps back to the nest.
  • It is best if wasp nests are destroyed at night when most of the wasps are in the nest.
  • Anyone treating the nest should wear protective clothing.
  • Underground nests are easily destroyed by putting insecticide powder containing carbaryl or permethrin into and around the entrance hole.
  • Always read the directions before using insecticide.

Fleas

  • Fleas are small, brown, wingless insects about 1.5mm to 4mm in size. They have long hind legs to enable them to jump up to 2 metres.
  • Fleas breed in the fur of animals and feed off their blood. The dark "spots" that you sometimes see around fleas are undigested blood that the fleas have eaten and passed.
  • Flea eggs fall off animals and can collect around animal bedding and resting places.
  • Cat and dog fleas are the most common in Australia.
  • Larvae (baby fleas) feed off food scraps, animal and human skin scales and flea poo. Adult fleas feed off blood and they sometimes bite people as well as animals.
  • Flea bites on people are usually found on the lower legs and feet.
  • People and animals often become sensitive to the bites, causing intense itching.
  • If fleas get onto a child, stand her in a bath with clothing on, then gradually remove clothing. The fleas will jump into the water and drown.

Prevention and control of Fleas

  • Regularly vacuum floors and any areas where animals rest or sleep.
  • Wash animal bedding in hot water regularly. Treat with insecticides if necessary.
  • Treat animals for fleas and keep pets out of the house if there is an outbreak.
  • Animals with fleas should also be treated for tapeworm.
  • If fleas are persistent, you may have to treat floors and animal bedding with insecticide.
  • A pest control operator or your local council can give advice in difficult cases.

Jellyfish

  • Jellyfish can give painful stings, usually causing a rash.
  • For stings in Southern waters, a cold pack is most useful. Ice should not be used. Vinegar is not recommended. Reactions away from the sting (anywhere else in the body) in sensitive people need urgent medical attention.
  • Box Jellyfish which are found in northern Australia are extremely dangerous and Kidsafe advises that the seas of the Northern Territory, even puddles left by the tide, are never safe for children.  If someone is stung by a Box jelly fish - remove him from the water, douse the sting area in vinegar, apply a cold pack, keep the person still. Get medical help urgently.
    • For more information have a look at the Toxinology site about Box Jellyfish

Blue ringed octopus

  • These are small and attractive and found in rock pools. They have a poison which causes rapid paralysis starting with difficulty speaking and swallowing and double vision. Children should be told never to touch them. Medical help is needed urgently. Maintain breathing by mouth to mouth (expired air) resuscitation if needed.
  • For more information have a look at the Toxinology website Blue-ringed octopus.

Ticks

  • The main tick that causes problems in Australia is found on the eastern coastline of Australia.
  • Ticks need a blood meal to be able to grow and produce eggs.  Ticks in Australia live on kangaroos, other native animals, dogs, sheep and rodents (as well as humans).
  • Ticks bury themselves in the skin and then the tick feeds on the blood and swells up over several days.
  • Most tick bites do not cause any health problems, but some can cause life threatening diseases including paralysis, tick typhus, lyme disease, and severe allergic reactions due to a toxin (poison) which is released into a person's body when the tick bites.

More information

SA Health Public Health Fact Sheet 'Ticks: prevention and treatment' 
http://www.dh.sa.gov.au/pehs/PDF-files/ph-factsheet-ticks.pdf  

Caterpillars

  • Hairy caterpillars, including "spitfires" can cause severe itch if the hairs get into the skin and then break off.
  • Wash clean and apply a cold pack to reduce the itch.

Centipedes

  • Centipedes may bite if you touch them. Bites are hardly ever serious but cause severe burning pain. The area around the bite may feel numb.
  • Use an ice pack or a cold pack for the pain and raise the arm or leg where the bite is to help prevent swelling. See your doctor if the bite becomes infected, eg gets very red, swollen, or oozes pus.

Scorpions

  • Scorpions will sting if disturbed. Stings are hardly ever serious in Australia but they can cause severe pain, swelling and redness.
  • Use an ice pack or a cold pack for the pain and raise the arm or leg where the bite is to help prevent swelling. See your doctor if the pain and swelling are severe.

Ants

  • Nearly all kinds of ant can bite or sting.
  • Ant bites can hurt for some hours and be red and swollen.
  • Sometimes ant bites can cause allergic reactions (any reaction that is away from where the bite is) and need immediate medical attention.
  • Jumping ants are becoming more prevalent in parts of Australia and they can cause very painful bites and allergic symptoms such as swelling around the bite area.

Resources

South Australia

Australia

  • Local Councils can usually give advice about preventing and eradicating fleas, lice and bedbugs.
  • National Poisons Information Centre Network. 13 11 26 (Local Call Fee). 24 hours, 7 days a week.

References

Clinical Toxinology, Women's and Children's Hospital and University of Adelaide, South Australia
http://www.toxinology.com/index.cfm

Department of Health, South Australia
Bites, burns and cuts

EpiPen.com Website
http://www.epipen.com/

White J, 'Venoms', 'Venomous Australian Snakes', 'Terrestrial Animals',  'Marine Animals', Current Therapeutics, February 2002, vol 43, No.2.

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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