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Insect bites and stings

16-minute read

If you think someone is having a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis), call triple zero (000) immediately. Learn more about anaphylaxis symptoms.

Key facts

  • An insect bite will usually leave a puncture wound in the skin.
  • The type of reaction you might have will depend on the type of insect that bit or stung you.
  • Common symptoms of a bite include skin irritation, inflammation or swelling, or a bump or blister around the bite mark.
  • Bites or stings from some insects can cause a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) in some people.

How do I know if I've been bitten by an insect?

An insect bite will usually leave a puncture wound in the skin. The type of reaction you might have will depend on the type of insect that bit you.

Insect bites will usually clear up in a day or two without any further treatment.

Common symptoms of a bite include:

  • skin irritation
  • inflammation or swelling
  • a bump or blister around the bite mark
Biters infographic tile image
See this insect bites infographic about common stinging insects and how to prevent being stung.

How do I know if I’ve been stung by an insect?

If you are stung, the insect will puncture the skin and leave behind saliva, faeces (poo) or venom.

It’s also quite common that for the insect to leave behind its ‘sting’, with or without venom.

Common symptoms of a sting include:

  • an intense burning feeling
  • redness around the sting site
  • pain which generally eases after an hour or so
  • swelling around the sting

In cases of allergic reaction, swelling may be more severe and affect a larger part of the body — for example the whole leg or arm may become swollen. Allergic reactions may also cause a blister to form.

Stings generally clear up within 48 hours, although the area may remain tender.

Stingers infographic tile image
See this insect stings infographic about common stinging insects and how to prevent being stung.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What is itching?

Itching is a common irritation of the skin that makes a person want to scratch the itchy area. It can occur anywhere on the body and can be very frustrating and uncomfortable.

Itching may occur on a small part of the body, for example around the area of an insect bite or sting, or it can affect the whole body, such as with an allergic reaction.

Sometimes spots or rashes may be present in the area that is itchy, or they be caused by scratching.

It is quite common to find that after you’ve scratched an itch, that the itch becomes more persistent (itchier) and you get into a cycle of itching and scratching. This can be painful and can sometimes lead to an infection if the skin is broken.

If itching persists for more than 48 hours, see your doctor.

How to relieve itching

To relieve itching, take the following steps:

  • Try not to scratch the area — Keep your nails short to prevent breaking the skin if you do scratch.
  • A cool bath or shower may help soothe itching — Gently pat yourself dry with a clean towel, but do not rub or use the towel to scratch yourself.
  • Wear loose cotton clothing — This can help prevent overheating, which can make the itch worse. Avoid fabrics which irritate your skin, such as wool or very textured fabrics.
  • Ice packs may relieve the itching — These should not be placed directly against the skin.
  • Speak to a pharmacist or your doctor for further advice on treatments that may help, such as calamine lotion, gels or sprays containing aluminium sulphate, a mild corticosteroid cream or antihistamine medicines and avoid perfumed skin care products.

If you are in pain, get advice on suitable pain-relieving medicines from a pharmacist or your doctor.

What is anaphylaxis?

Rarely, some people experience a severe allergic reaction to being bitten or stung by an insect.

In cases of severe allergic reaction, the whole body can react within minutes to the bite or sting which can lead to anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis is very serious and can be fatal.

Anaphylaxis symptoms

Symptoms of anaphylaxis include:

Young children may be pale and floppy.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

What should I do if someone experiences anaphylactic shock?

Call triple zero (000) for an ambulance.

If the person has a 'personal action plan' to manage a known severe allergy, they may need assistance to follow their plan. This may include administering adrenaline (epinephrine) to the person via an autoinjector (such as EpiPen or Anapen) if one is available.

The Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA) recommends that for a severe allergic reaction, adrenaline is the initial treatment. For further information, visit the Choosing Wisely Australia website.

The St John Ambulance Australia first aid fact sheet for bites and stings can be found on their website. ASCIA has information on anaphylaxis and making a personal action plan.

People with known allergies should avoid all triggers and confirmed allergens and have a readily accessible anaphylaxis action plan and medical alert device. It's wise to ensure your family, friends and employer or work colleagues know how to follow your anaphylaxis action plan, in case you need help.

Watch this video from Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia for more information about how to recognise signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction.

Video not working? View it here.

How to treat bee, wasp and ant stings

Bee and wasp stings and Australian Jack Jumper ant bites are the most common triggers of anaphylaxis caused by insect stings.

Wasps are generally more aggressive than bees and are attracted to food and sugary drinks. Check open food and drink containers when you are outdoors before you eat or drink from them.

Take these steps if you are stung by a bee:

  • If the sting is still in the skin, gently try to remove it by scraping it carefully from the side with the edge of a firm object, such as a fingernail or credit card. Flick the sting out as soon as possible to reduce the amount of venom injected.
  • Do not use tweezers to remove the sting. Bees leave behind a sack of venom, and if you use tweezers, you may squeeze more venom from the sack into your skin.
  • After you have removed the sting, wash the affected area with soap and water and dry the area gently.

Wasps and bull ants rarely leave their sting in the skin.

Always wash the area of the sting with soap and water and keep it clean. Applying a cold pack can help relieve pain and reduce swelling. Simple pain relief medicines such as paracetamol or ibuprofen can also be used if pain continues.

Oral antihistamine medicines or creams containing a mild corticosteroid can help relieve itching. Talk to your pharmacist about which treatment is right for you.

If the pain persists or if the area of redness where you were stung continues to increase in size, see your doctor. You may need a prescription medicine to help settle the swelling and treat any infection.

How to treat tick bites

Allergic reactions to ticks range from mild (with significant swelling and inflammation at the site of the bite) to severe (anaphylaxis).

To prevent allergic reactions DO NOT forcibly remove the tick. Disturbing the tick may cause the tick to inject more allergen-containing saliva. The options are to:

  • Leave the tick in place and seek medical assistance.
  • Freeze the tick (using a product that rapidly freezes and kills the tick) and allow it to drop off.

If the tick does not drop off, or you can’t freeze the tick, leave the tick in place and seek urgent medical assistance to remove the tick.

DO NOT:

  • grasp the tick by the body,
  • apply methylated spirits or nail polish
  • use a lighter, match or cigarette to burn off the tick

Watch this video from the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA) on how to safely remove a tick.

Once the tick is out, apply antiseptic cream to the bite site. Tick bites can remain slightly itchy for several weeks.

Learn more about tick bites. Visit the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and (ASCIA) for information on tick allergy.

Preventing tick bites

Ticks can attach to your skin when you’re out and about in the bush.

To protect yourself from ticks:

  • Wear light coloured clothing.
  • Tuck your trousers into your socks.
  • Spray an insect repellent containing diethyltoluamide (DEET) or picaridin onto your skin, shoes and socks.

If you are pregnant or using DEET on using on children, make sure to follow the instructions for safe usage when using a product containing DEET.

After returning from an area known to have ticks, thoroughly check all members of the party (especially children) for ticks. Pay particular attention to the back of the head and neck, groin, armpits and back of the knees. Remember that it’s possible to be bitten by more than one tick at a time.

How to treat mosquito bites

Mosquitoes cause itchy bites, but severe allergic reactions are rare.

Most mosquito bites can be managed by washing the area with soap and water and applying an antiseptic. Cold packs may help with local pain and swelling. Talk to your pharmacist or doctor about what treatments are best for you if the bite is very itchy.

Some types of mosquitoes can spread serious diseases.

See your doctor if you are bitten by a mosquito and develop symptoms including:

These may be symptoms of certain mosquito-borne diseases.

Preventing mosquito bites

To lessen your chance of being bitten by mosquitoes (and midges), cover up as much skin as possible and stay inside in the early morning or at dusk. Use an insect repellent when you are out and about and there are mosquitoes around.

Information on avoiding mosquito bites can be found on the Queensland Health website.

How to treat scorpion and centipede stings

Take these steps if you are stung by a scorpion or a centipede:

  • Apply an ice pack to the sting or bite site.
  • Clean the wound with antiseptic or by washing the area with soap and water to help prevent secondary infection.
  • Use a pain-relief medicine such as paracetamol or ibuprofen.

How to treat caterpillar stings to the skin

Take these steps if you are stung by a caterpillar:

  • Remove visible caterpillar hairs with tweezers.
  • Apply and remove adhesive tape to the area to remove the finer caterpillar hairs.
  • Do not scratch or rub the area. This may cause the hairs to penetrate deeper into the skin.

How to treat leech bites

When leeches latch on to skin, their bites are relatively painless; however, their saliva contains an anticoagulant. This stops a clot forming where the host’s skin has been broken and allows the leech to feed on the host’s blood.

Applying salt, salt water or vinegar to an actively feeding leech will cause it to fall off, but a leech will usually fall off without any treatment after about 20 minutes or when the leech becomes swollen.

DO NOT:

  • try to pull the leech off — the skin may be torn, and this can lead to an infection
  • use heat (such as a hot coal or cigarette) as this can result in burns to the person who was bitten

After the leech has been removed:

  • Wash the area with soap and water.
  • Apply a cold pack to help relieve pain and any swelling.
  • Apply pressure to the site of the bite if it is bleeding.
  • Seek medical attention if a wound develops or the area becomes infected (for example, if the skin becomes red, hot or pus develops).

How to treat fire ant stings

Fire ants often sting together and can sting repeatedly. Stings can cause a burning sensation, itch, swelling, redness and blistering. If you’ve been stung by a fire ant you should:

How can I prevent bites and stings?

To help prevent bites and stings, it’s a good idea to wear protective clothing such as closed shoes, socks, long pants and a long-sleeved shirt when walking through the bush.

Wear protective gloves and clothing when gardening. Bites and stings are more likely to occur if you have bare feet, so wear shoes when you are outside, even around your home.

Should I do a first aid course?

Knowing what to do in an emergency can save a life, so it’s a very good idea to do a first aid course.

You can book a first aid course through St John Ambulance Australia or call them on 1300 360 455. You will need to pay a fee to do a course.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: February 2024


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