First Aid for Bites & Stings

Written by Linda Hepler, RN | Published on July 17, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on July 17, 2014

First Aid for Bites & Stings

Not all bites or stings are the same. Whether you are bitten by an insect, spider, or a snake, you have to take different steps to apply the right first aid and seek proper medical assistance.

Insects

Nearly everyone has had an insect bite or sting at one time. Most bites or stings, whether from mosquitoes, flies, bees, or wasps, result in a mild reaction to the venom or other protein that the insect injects into you. This can result in redness, minor swelling, pain, and itching at the site of the bite or sting. 

Some people develop a severe allergic reaction to an insect sting, often from a bee or wasp. A severe reaction may result in:

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

If you or someone you know begins experiencing these symptoms shortly after an insect bite or sting, call 911 and get to an emergency room as soon as possible. A severe, whole body allergic reaction is called anaphylaxis. This can be life-threatening if not treated promptly.

If you have ever had a severe reaction to an insect sting, you should request a medication called epinephrine from your doctor. Epinephrine is injected into the muscle through an “auto injector.” It acts quickly on the body to raise your blood pressure, stimulate your heart, and improve swelling and breathing. It should be carried with you at all times, but especially when outdoors.

First Aid Care

  • If the stinger is still in the skin, remove it by gently scraping across the skin with a flat-edged object like a credit card.
  • Wash the area with soap and water.
  • Place a cold compress or an ice pack (wrapped in a cloth to protect the skin) on the sting or bite for about 10 minutes to reduce pain and swelling.
  • Apply calamine lotion, an antihistamine cream, or a paste of baking soda and water to the area several times a day until itching and pain are resolved.

If There Are Signs of a Severe Allergic Reaction

  • Ask someone to call for medical help, or call 911 if you are alone.
  • Ask the person whether he or she carries an epinephrine injector, and if so, assist him or her to use it according to label directions.
  • Help the person to remain calm and lie quietly with the legs elevated. If vomiting occurs, turn the person onto his or her side to prevent choking. Do not give them anything to drink.
  • If the person becomes unconscious and stops breathing, begin CPR, and continue until medical help arrives.

Spiders

Most spider bites are harmless. Several hours to a day after the bite, you may notice symptoms similar to an insect sting or bite, such as redness, swelling, pain, or itching.

However, two kinds of spiders that can cause a more serious reaction: the black widow and the brown recluse.

Both can be easily identified. The black widow spider is about a half-inch long. It has a black body with a red hourglass marking on the underside of its abdomen. Some black widows have red spots on the upper surface of the abdomen with crosswise red bars on the underside. Black widow spider venom causes problems with the nervous system. Within a few hours of a bite, you may notice intense pain at the site of the bite, along with chills or fever, abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting. 

The brown recluse spider is larger than the black widow—about an inch in length. It varies in color from a yellowish tan to a dark brown. It has a violin shape on the surface of the upper body, with the base of the violin toward the head and the neck of the violin pointing toward the rear. The brown recluse spider bite causes damage to the skin at the bite’s area. About eight hours following the bite, redness and intense pain occurs, followed by the development of a blister. When the blister breaks down, a deep ulcer is left in the skin. You also may have a fever, rash, and/or nausea as well as the potential for an infection in the ulcerated skin area.

If you recognize a bite as that of a black widow or a brown recluse spider, seek immediate medical attention.

First Aid Care

First aid care for most spider bites is similar to that of insect bites and stings.

  • Wash the area with soap and water.
  • Place a cold compress or an ice pack (wrapped in a cloth to protect the skin) on the sting or bite for about 10 minutes to reduce pain and swelling.
  • Apply calamine lotion, an antihistamine cream, or a paste of baking soda and water to the area several times a day until itching and pain are resolved.

First Aid Care for a Brown Recluse or Black Widow Spider Bite

  • Clean the skin with soap and water.
  • Help the person remain calm to reduce the spread of venom; do NOT apply a tourniquet.
  • Apply a cold compress or ice pack wrapped in a cloth to protect the skin.
  • Get the victim to medical care as soon as possible. If you can, catch the spider or take a picture to help medical personnel identify it.

Snakes

While many snakes are harmless, there are a few common species in the United States, such as the copperhead, coral, cottonmouth, and rattlesnake, that can be poisonous and even deadly.

Symptoms of a poisonous snake bite vary depending upon the snake, but can include:

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

A poisonous snake bite is a medical emergency. Quick treatment can minimize symptoms and aid in recovery.

First Aid Care

  • Summon medical help immediately. In addition, you can call the National Poison Control Center hotline (800-222-1222) for instructions.
  • Help the person to remain calm and lie quietly. Movement can spread the venom more rapidly, so try to keep the body still, especially in the bite area. Do not raise the bitten area above the level of the heart.
  • Remove constricting jewelry or clothing around the bite area, as swelling may occur.
  • If there are symptoms of shock, such as dizziness, weakness, pale and clammy skin, shortness of breath ,and increased heart rate, have the person lie quietly with his or her feet elevated about 12 inches. Cover him or her with a blanket to maintain body warmth.

Steps NOT to Take

  • Do not endanger yourself by trying to capture the snake.
  • Do not cut or suck the area of the snake bite.
  • Do not wash the snake bite (residual venom at the bite area can help medical personnel to identify the type of snake for proper treatment).
  • Do not apply cold to the bite.
  • Do not give the victim anything to eat or drink, or any pain medication.
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