First Aid for Bites and Stings
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First Aid for Bites and Stings

Overview

Not all bites or stings are the same. You will need different first aid treatment and medical care depending on what type of creature has bitten or stung you. Some species can cause more damage than others. Some people also have allergies that raise the risk of a serious reaction.

Here’s how to recognize and treat the symptoms of bites and stings from insects, spiders, and snakes.

Insects

Nearly everyone has been bitten or stung by an insect at one time or another. Whether you’ve been attacked by a mosquito, fly, bee, wasp, ant, or other bug, insect bites and stings usually cause a mild reaction. Your body reacts to venom or other proteins that insects inject into you or transfer to your body through their saliva. This can result in symptoms at the site of the bite or sting, such as:

  • redness
  • swelling
  • pain
  • itching

The severity of your symptoms can vary, depending on the type of insect that bites or stings you. Some people also develop a severe allergic reaction to insect stings or bites. Bee and wasp allergies are particularly common. A severe allergic reaction can cause:

  • hives
  • abdominal cramps
  • nausea and vomiting
  • swelling of your face, lips, or throat
  • breathing problems
  • shock

If you or someone you know begins to experience these symptoms shortly after being bitten or stung by an insect, call 911 or local emergency services. A severe allergic reaction that affects multiple parts of your body is called anaphylaxis. It can be life-threatening if not treated promptly.

If you’ve ever had a severe reaction to an insect bite or sting, ask your doctor about allergy testing. If you’ve been diagnosed with a severe allergy, your doctor should prescribe a medication called epinephrine. You can use a preloaded epinephrine auto-injector (e.g., EpiPen®) to inject the medication in your outer thigh muscle. It acts quickly to raise your blood pressure, stimulate your heart, and reduce swelling of your airways. You should carry it with you at all times, especially when you’re outdoors in areas where you might encounter insects.

First aid treatment

If someone shows signs of a severe allergic reaction, help them get emergency medical attention and follow the steps in the next section. If they show no signs of a severe reaction, treat the site of the bite or sting for minor symptoms:

  • If the insect’s stinger is still embedded in their skin, remove it by gently scraping a flat-edged object, such as a credit card, across their skin. Avoid using tweezers to remove the stinger, since squeezing it may release more venom.
  • Wash the area of the bite with soap and water.
  • Place a cold compress or ice pack on the area for about 10 minutes at a time to help reduce pain and swelling. Wrap any ice or ice packs in a clean cloth to protect their skin.
  • Apply calamine lotion or a paste of baking soda and water to the area several times a day to help relieve itching and pain. Calamine lotion is a type of antihistamine cream.

Emergency treatment for a severe allergic reaction

If you suspect someone may be having a severe allergic reaction:

  • Ask someone else to call 911, or local emergency services, right away. If you’re alone, contact emergency services before you provide other treatment.
  • Ask the person whether they carry an epinephrine auto-injector. If they do, retrieve it for them and help them use it according to the label directions.
  • Encourage them to remain calm, lie down quietly with their legs elevated, and stay still. If they start to vomit, turn them onto their side to allow the vomit to drain and prevent choking.
  • If they become unconscious and stop breathing, begin CPR. Continue it until medical help arrives.

To avoid making matters worse, don’t apply a tourniquet. You should also avoid giving them anything to eat or drink.

Spiders

Most spider bites are relatively harmless. Anywhere from several hours to a day after you get bitten, you may notice symptoms similar to those of an insect sting or bite. At the site of the bite, you may experience:

  • redness
  • swelling
  • pain
  • itching

Some types of spiders can cause more serious reactions, including black widow and brown recluse spiders. If you know what to look for, it’s easy to identify both of these species.

Fully grown black widow spiders are about 1/2-inch long. They have a black body with a red hourglass marking on the underside of their abdomen. Some black widow spiders also have red spots on the upper surface of their abdomen and crosswise red bars on the underside.

Black widow spider venom causes problems with your nervous system. Within a few hours of being bitten, you may notice intense pain at the site of the bite. You may also experience other symptoms, such as chills, fever, abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting.

Fully grown brown recluse spiders are larger than black widow spiders. They’re about 1 inch in length. They vary in color from yellowish tan to dark brown. They have a violin-shaped marking on the surface of their upper body, with the base of the violin facing toward their head and the neck of the violin pointing toward their rear.

Brown recluse spider bites cause damage to your skin. Within about eight hours of being bitten, you will experience redness and intense pain at the site of the bite. Over time, a blister will develop. When the blister breaks down, it will leave a deep ulcer in your skin, which can become infected. You also may develop symptoms such as fever, rash, and nausea.

First aid treatment

If you suspect that someone has been bitten by a brown recluse or black widow spider, help them get medical treatment immediately and follow the steps in the section. Otherwise, treat their spider bite like you would most insect bites and stings:

  • Wash the area of the bite with soap and water.
  • Place a cold compress or ice pack on the area for about 10 minutes to help reduce pain and swelling. Wrap any ice or ice packs in a clean cloth to protect their skin.
  • Apply calamine lotion or a paste of baking soda and water to the injured area to help relieve itching and pain. Calamine lotion is a common antihistamine cream.

Emergency treatment for a brown recluse or black widow spider bite

If you suspect that someone has been bitten by a brown recluse or black widow spider:

  • Contact their doctor or help them get emergency medical treatment immediately.
  • Clean the area of the bite with soap and water.
  • Encourage them to remain calm and still to reduce the spread of venom.
  • Apply a cold compress or ice pack to the area of the bite. Wrap ice or ice packs in a clean cloth to protect their skin.
  • If you can do so safely, take a description or picture of the spider that bit them. This can help medical professionals identify it and choose an appropriate course of treatment.

Don’t apply a tourniquet. Avoid giving them anything to eat or drink.

Snakes

While many snakes are harmless, the bite of some species can be poisonous and even deadly. Common species of poisonous snakes in the United States include:

  • copperhead
  • coral
  • cottonmouth
  • rattlesnake

Symptoms of a poisonous snake bite can vary, depending on the type of snake. They can include:

  • weakness
  • dizziness
  • fainting
  • convulsions
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • rapid pulse
  • loss of muscle coordination
  • swelling in the area of the bite

A poisonous snake bite is a medical emergency. Prompt treatment can minimize symptoms and promote recovery.

First aid treatment for mild bites

If someone has been bitten by a snake, and you suspect it may be poisonous, help them get emergency medical treatment and follow the steps in the next session. If you know the snake wasn’t poisonous, treat the area of the bite for bleeding and other symptoms:

  • Use a clean cloth or gauze to apply pressure to the area until bleeding stops.
  • Clean the area with soap and water.
  • Apply an antibiotic cream to help ward off infection.
  • Cover the wound with a sterile bandage or gauze to protect it while it heals.

If the person is experiencing severe bleeding, help them get emergency medical treatment. Continue to apply new layers of cloth or gauze to the bleeding area, on top of layers that have been soaked through with blood. Removing old layers can make the bleeding worse.

Emergency treatment for poisonous snake bites

If you suspect that someone has been bitten by a poisonous snake:

  • Help them get medical help immediately. You can also call the National Poison Control Center hotline (800-222-1222) in the United States for emergency treatment instructions.
  • Encourage them to remain calm, lie down quietly, and stay still. Movement can cause the venom to spread through their body more quickly.
  • Remove tight jewelry or clothing around the site of the bite, since swelling may occur.
  • If they develop pale and clammy skin, dizziness, weakness, shortness of breath, or increased heart rate, treat them for shock. Give them a blanket or extra layer of clothing to stay warm.
  • If you can do so safely, take a description or picture of the snake that bit them. This can help medical professionals identify the snake and an appropriate course of treatment.

To avoid making things worse, do not:

  • endanger yourself by trying to capture the snake
  • wash the site of the bite, since residual venom can help medical professionals identify the type of snake and proper treatment
  • apply a cold compress to the site of the bite
  • raise the bitten area above the level of their heart
  • cut or suck the site of the bite
  • give the person anything to eat or drink
  • give the person any pain medications

The takeaway

Most people are bitten or stung by insects, spiders, or snakes at some point in their lives. For mild bites and stings, basic first aid treatment is usually enough. Treat the area for minor bleeding, swelling, pain, and itching.

If you suspect that someone may be having a severe reaction to a bite or sting, help them get medical attention right away. People with certain allergies may have a severe allergic reaction to a bite or sting. Some critters, such as black widow spiders, brown recluse spiders, and poisonous snakes can cause a lot of damage. Being prepared for possible emergencies can help you keep yourself and others safe.

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