Most insect bites will improve within a few hours or days and can be treated at home.

This page covers:

First aid for insect bites and stings

Removing a sting

Removing a tick

Dealing with caterpillar hairs

Relieving the symptoms of an insect bite or sting

When to get medical advice

When to get emergency help

First aid for insect bites and stings

To treat an insect bite or sting:

  • Remove the sting, tick or hairs if still in the skin (see below for advice about how to do this safely). 
  • Wash the affected area with soap and water.
  • Apply a cold compress (such as a flannel or cloth cooled with cold water) or an ice pack to any swelling for at least 10 minutes.
  • Raise or elevate the affected area if possible, as this can help reduce swelling.
  • Avoid scratching the area or bursting any blisters, to reduce the risk of infection – if your child has been bitten or stung, it may help to keep their fingernails short and clean.
  • Avoid traditional home remedies, such as vinegar and bicarbonate of soda, as they're unlikely to help.

The pain, swelling and itchiness can sometimes last a few days. See below for advice about how to relieve the symptoms of an insect bite or sting in the meantime.

Removing a sting

If you've been stung and the sting has been left in your skin, you should remove it as soon as possible to prevent any more venom being released.

Scrape it out sideways with something with a hard edge, such as a bank card, or your fingernails if you don't have anything else to hand.

Don't pinch the sting with your fingers or tweezers because you may spread the venom.

Removing a tick

If you've been bitten by a tick and it's still attached to your skin, remove it as soon as possible to reduce your risk of picking up illnesses such as Lyme disease.

To remove a tick:

  • Use a pair of fine-tipped tweezers or a tick removal tool (available from pet shops or vets).
  • Grip the tick as close to the skin as possible to ensure the tick's mouth isn't left in the skin.
  • Pull steadily away from the skin without twisting or crushing the tick
  • Wash your skin with water and soap afterwards, and apply an antiseptic cream to the skin around the bite.

Don't use a lit cigarette end, a match head or substances such as alcohol or petroleum jelly to force the tick out.

Dealing with caterpillar hairs

If a caterpillar of the oak processionary moth gets on your skin:

  • Use tweezers or a pen to remove it.
  • Try not to disturb it (for example, by brushing it with your hands) as it will then release more hairs.
  • Rinse your skin with running water, allow it to air dry and then use sticky tape to strip off any leftover hairs.
  • Use calamine, ice packs or a pharmacy remedy containing 3.5% ammonia to relieve the itch.
  • Remove all contaminated clothes and wash at as a high a temperature as the fabric allows.

Don't towel yourself dry after rinsing or use creams containing antihistamine.

Relieving the symptoms of an insect bite or sting

If you have troublesome symptoms after an insect bite or sting, the following treatments may help:

  • For pain or discomfort – take over-the-counter painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen (children under 16 years of age shouldn't be given aspirin).
  • For itching – ask your pharmacist about over-the-counter treatments, including crotamiton cream or lotion, hydrocortisone cream or ointment and antihistamine tablets.
  • For swelling – try regularly applying a cold compress or ice pack to the affected area, or ask your pharmacist about treatments such as antihistamine tablets.

See your GP if these treatments don't help. They may prescribe stronger medicines such as steroid tablets.

When to get medical advice

Contact your GP or call NHS 111 for advice if:

  • you're worried about a bite or sting
  • your symptoms don't start to improve within a few days or are getting worse
  • you've been stung or bitten in your mouth or throat, or near your eyes
  • a large area (around 10cm or more) around the bite becomes red and swollen – your GP may refer you to an allergy clinic for further tests or treatment (read about treating allergies)
  • you have symptoms of a wound infection, such as pus or increasing pain, swelling or redness – you may need antibiotics
  • you have symptoms of a more widespread infection, such as a fever, swollen glands and other flu-like symptoms

When to get emergency help

Dial 999 for an ambulance immediately if you or someone else has symptoms of a severe reaction, such as:

  • wheezing or difficulty breathing
  • a swollen face, mouth or throat
  • nausea or vomiting
  • a fast heart rate
  • dizziness or feeling faint
  • difficulty swallowing
  • loss of consciousness

Emergency treatment in hospital is needed in these cases.

Page last reviewed: 01/07/2016

Next review due: 01/07/2019