Don’t let the bugs bite: Prevention and treatment

Story highlights

Among the most common summertime bites and stings are those from fleas and bees

The more times you have been bitten by mosquitoes in your life, the less sensitive you are to it

Bug repellents can help prevent mosquito and tick bites, but make sure to apply them after sunscreens and lotions

CNN  — 

From family picnics to camping trips, summer is the time when we invade insect territory. And the bugs are ready for us: fleas, ticks and mosquitoes all thrive in warmer months.

As temperatures rise, “it switches from flu season to bite season; one stops and the other starts,” said Dr. Joe Sliwkowski, a family medicine and sports medicine doctor at CareWell Urgent Care in Framingham, Massachusetts.

Although we may never break free from the cycle of spray, swat and scratch, there are better ways than ever to prevent and treat bug bites. Simple foods such as garlic and basil may help fight the bite. And never scratch the bite, if you can help it, because that increases your risk of infection, Sliwkowski warned.

Buzz off, bugs! How to stay safe during insect season

We need all the help we can get to combat the insect world – it is estimated that their global population is a staggering 10 quintillion (that’s 10 with 18 zeros).

“If you add (the insects) up, it’s pretty scary, so we need to be aware they’re there and take precautions,” Sliwkowski said.

And next time you’re nursing a nasty bite or rash, try to keep in mind that insects have their place. Honeybees fertilize about a third of the world’s crops. And even the lowly mosquito is an important food for birds and fish, after it feasts on you.

What’s really eating you

Spiders may get the blame – unfairly – when you wake up with itchy pink bumps.

The truth is, these arachnids often avoid people, preferring to dine on insects rather than human blood.

The much more likely culprits are fleas, whose bites tend to occur in groups of three or four, often around your ankles, and can cause a red rash. “They tend to be more prevalent when it’s warm and dogs are out more,” Sliwkowski said.

It is more important than ever this time of year to treat your furry friends with flea and other pest repellents, he added.

Feel the burn

It’s bad enough that many insects – honeybees, fire ants, wasps, to name a few – release venom when they bite or sting that causes pain and swelling.

But for some people, the venom triggers an allergic reaction, which can either be localized to the sting site or spread throughout the body and create a life-threatening anaphylactic shock.

“The allergic reaction is very individualized,” Sliwkowski said. He has treated patients who developed welts the size of lemons where they were bitten. This type of localized reaction can usually be managed with over-the-counter antihistamines, such as Zyrtec, Sliwkowski said.

Call 911

Life-threatening allergic reactions to bug bites or stings are rare, occurring in fewer than 1% of children and about 3% of adults. But if you know that you may have this kind of reaction, “it’s critical that you carry an EpiPen at all times if you are in an outdoor area because bees can be anywhere,” Sliwkowski said.

Even if you are quick to jab yourself with an EpiPen after you are stung, you should still call 911 for help because the medication in the EpiPen (epinephrine) only gives temporary relief that lasts about 10 minutes, Sliwkowski said.

Rate your pain

How bad does it hurt? If it’s so bad that you can’t even answer this question, your sting might top the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, which ranks the pain intensity from different insect stings.

The most painful bite of all (level 4) is courtesy of the tropical bullet ant, which is fortunately found off the beaten path in the South American rainforest. The entomologist who developed the index, Justin Schmidt, described the kiss of this ant as “pure, intense, brilliant pain.”

Next time you are wailing about a fire ant or honeybee sting, remember that they rank only level 1 and 2 on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index.

Herbs, pills and creams can soothe the sting

Your backyard garden might be full of buzzing biters, but it may also contain a natural remedy for the pain.

“Basil has anti-inflammatory properties, so if my kids have bites I just take the leaf, crinkle it and rub it on the skin,” Sliwkowski said.

You can also soothe the pain and itching with over-the-counter medications such as Zyrtec even if you don’t have an allergic reaction.