First Aid for Unknown Bug Bites

Baking soda being used to relieve itching from insect bites.

For the most part, big bites and insect stings are nothing more than an uncomfortable nuisance, often the price you pay for spending time outdoors. Although they usually clear up within a few days with minor home treatment, some people may have a poor reaction to a bite, if they have an allergy or if you can’t identify what bit you.

Most bugs are not big or poisonous enough to cause more than a mild reaction such as stinging, itching, and minor swelling, although stings from insects such as bees, wasps, or hornets often cause more painful reactions. If you feel a sharp stinging pain and think one of those could be responsible, the first step is to remove the stinger, which continues to pump venom into the skin. There is an important technique: don’t use tweezers to pull it out, since this squeezes venom into the wound; instead, use a thin, flat object like a credit card to sweep over the area and brush it off.

Even if you can’t identify the source of your bite, many of the first aid steps apply to a wide variety. First, if you’re being stung or bitten, remove yourself from the area. Next, wash the area around the bite with soap and water, and if possible, apply a cold compress or ice pack to reduce swelling and ease any pain.

For bites that itch, a topical cream can help relieve symptoms; look for one that contains calamine, colloidal oatmeal, or baking soda. For painful areas, ointments with ingredients such as lidocaine, hydrocortisone, and pramoxine.

In rare cases, a person may have a toxic or allergic reaction to a bug bite. If you suspect an allergic reaction and they exhibit serious symptoms like difficulty breathing, nausea, vomiting, cramping, swelling of the face or throat, dizziness or confusion, or if they break out in hives, call for medical help. If the person is aware that they have an allergy, they may have an epinephrin pen (commonly known as an epi pen)— ask them if they need help making the injection. Perform CPR if they lose consciousness and don’t appear to be breathing, and keep them calm until help arrives.

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