Bug Bites: Your Complete Treatment Guide

As warm weather encourages us to shed layers and expose more skin, the incidence of bug bites rises. Here’s an insect-by-insect guide to warding off bites and treating your kids if they do get “bugged.”

As cool spring days give way to summer warmth, we trade in sweaters and long pants for t-shirts, shorts, and bathing suits. With all of that exposed skin, our children are left more vulnerable to bites and stings from the many creepy critters that slither, crawl, and fly when the weather gets warm.

Most bug bites and stings are nothing more than a minor annoyance. They may cause mild itching or swelling, but these symptoms usually go away within a day or two. But in rare cases, children can develop a severe allergic reaction to the insect venom and require immediate medical attention.

The good news is that you can easily prevent—and treat—insect bites and stings.

Here is an insect-by-insect guide:

Bee, Hornet, Yellow Jacket, or Wasp Stings

To prevent stings, avoid dressing your children in flowery prints, which attract bees. Also steer clear of sweet-smelling soaps and lotions. Whenever your family eats outside, cover open foods, especially sodas—bees love the sweet liquids. If a bee or other stinging insect flies by, tell your children to hold completely still. Swatting at a bee will only make it mad enough to sting.

If your child is stung:

  • Remove the stinger as soon as possible. Either pull it out with a pair of tweezers or scrape it with a hard-edged object, such as a credit card. Then wash the affected area and clean it with a disinfectant.
  • Apply a mixture of meat tenderizer and water, or a paste made of baking soda and water, to neutralize the venom.
  • Apply ice or a cold, wet washcloth on the sting to reduce swelling.
  • Cover the area with calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream (.5 percent or 1 percent) to ease itching and swelling. A dose of acetaminophen can also reduce your child’s discomfort.
  • Watch for an allergic reaction (especially if this is your child’s first bee sting). If she is having difficulty breathing, breaks out in hives, or if her tongue or lips begin to swell, call 911 immediately.

Mosquito Bites

The media has focused a lot of attention on mosquito bites over the past few years, because of the spread of the West Nile Virus. In reality, only a small percentage of mosquitoes are infected with the virus, and an even smaller percentage of people (about one percent) who are bitten by an infected mosquito come down with the most serious West Nile symptom—a brain inflammation called encephalitis.

Even though your child’s risk of contracting West Nile is minimal, it’s a good idea to take precautions, especially between dusk and dawn, when mosquitoes are at their most voracious:

  • Before children over two years of age go outside, apply an insect repellant containing 10 to 30 percent of the ingredient DEET.
  • Children under the age of two, who are too young for DEET, should be dressed in long pants and long-sleeved shirts in the evening to prevent a bite.

If you know that your child has been bitten by a mosquito, and she is running a very high fever, seems disoriented or dazed, or is extremely sensitive to light, call your pediatrician immediately.

Tick Bites

A tick bite itself causes little discomfort, but ticks can carry serious illnesses such as Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

If your child is going to play in a wooded area, dress her in light clothing so that you can quickly spot any ticks. If she is over age two, apply an insect repellant containing 10 to 30 percent DEET. As soon as she leaves the wooded area, check her skin and hair for ticks.

If you spot a tick:

  • Remove it from your child’s skin immediately. Use tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible. Pull up slowly and gently. Don’t jerk the tick out, because you might crush it (and release fluids that contain potentially infectious organisms) or lodge its head in your child’s skin (if this happens, remove the remaining piece with your tweezers).
  • Your child’s pediatrician may want you to save the tick for identification. You can either keep it in a plastic bag in the freezer or store it in a jar of alcohol. If you decide not to keep the tick, flush it down the toilet. Always wash your hands after handling a tick.
  • Clean the affected skin with alcohol or another antiseptic. DON’T try to kill a tick with petroleum jelly or a lit match. These methods don’t work, and they can release even more dangerous fluids from the tick.

Call your child’s doctor immediately if you notice a red ring or rash around the bite area, or if your child has a fever, muscle aches, or joint pain.

Chigger Bites

These tiny bugs are almost impossible to spot, but their itchy red bites are hard to miss. Most often found in the South, chiggers hide in tall grass, forests, rotten logs, and swamps. Chiggers are not actually bugs, they are the larva of a type of mite.

Legend has it that chiggers burrow under the skin and drink our blood. Not true. Actually, they attach themselves to the skin, usually around the waist, ankles, or wrists, where the skin is loose. Then they inject a digestive fluid that dissolves skin cells, which they eat. A chigger will stay attached to the skin until it is full, then drop off, leaving a red, itchy bump.

If your child is bitten:

  • Give her a hot bath to remove any remaining chiggers, then apply an antiseptic to her welts to prevent infection.
  • A local anesthetic or over-the-counter anti-itch cream can help soothe itching.

To protect your child against chigger bites, apply an insect repellant that specifically targets these tiny insects.

Spider Bites

Most spiders are harmless. Only the black widow and brown recluse, found mainly in the South, have a poisonous bite. A black widow can be identified by its globe-shaped black body with a distinctive red mark on its belly. The brown recluse has a violin-shaped marking on its back.

Neither of these spiders have a painful bite—in fact, their bites feel like little more than a pinprick. But within a few hours, severe pain and stiffness, nausea, and/or fever may set in. With a brown recluse bite, a fluid-filled blister may form at the site.

To prevent a spider bite, don’t let your children play near wood or rock piles, where spiders like to hide. Always shake out any blankets, clothing, or shoes that have been left outside.

If your child does get bitten, clean the site well with soap and water. Treat any mild discomfort with acetaminophen.

In the event of a black widow or brown recluse bite, apply a cold compress or ice to the wound to slow the venom’s spread, and call your local poison control center or your child’s pediatrician immediately.

Whether you’re visiting with friends, running a quick errand with your kids, or heading out for the great outdoors for a few days, it doesn’t hurt to be prepared and include a small first-aid kit in the trunk of your car. You never know when those little buggers will decide to nip at you or the little someone in your life!

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