How to prevent and treat bug bites and stings

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By Erin Dobie, CNP

Minnesota summers bring warm weather and opportunities for our kids to go outside exploring and playing in nature. Pesky insects often irritate or interrupt summer fun. Learn how to prevent insect bites, treat bites when they do occur, remove ticks and how to know when you should seek medical attention for your child.

How to treat bites

Insect bites and bee stings react because of venom injected into the skin. The severity of reaction depends on your child’s sensitivity to the venom. Most reactions are mild, causing redness, local swelling and irritation or itching. These usually will go away in two to three days. Calamine lotion or any anti-itch gel or cream may help soothe the itching.

Bee stings cause immediate pain and a red bump, but usually the discomfort lessens within 15 minutes. More than 10 bee stings at once (extremely rare) may cause a more-severe reaction with vomiting, diarrhea and headache. Allergic reactions to bee stings can be severe and quickly get worse. These reactions include difficulty breathing, swelling of the lips, tongue or throat, or confusion. Children who have a severe reaction need immediate medical attention, and you should call 911. If the child has a known bee allergy and an Epi-pen is available, the Epi-pen should be administered in addition to calling 911. If a stinger is present, try to rub it off with something flat such as the edge of a credit card. Do not try to squeeze the stinger out or try to dig it out. If it does not come out easily, soak the area in water and leave it alone to come out on its own.

Tick bites don’t often cause much of a local reaction. They’re primarily concerning because they can transmit infectious diseases. Ticks are prevalent in Minnesota. They’re generally found on the ground in wooded or heavily bushy areas. Ticks can’t jump or fly. Generally they climb grass and climb onto someone to attach as we brush up against them. Ticks are most active during the spring and summer months.

There are a few different infectious diseases that can be transmitted by ticks, but the most common one found in the Minnesota-Wisconsin area is Lyme disease (Borrelia burgdorferi). To infect a person, a tick typically must be attached to the skin for at least 36 hours. The incubation period, the time from infection to being symptomatic, is anytime between three and 30 days.

Lyme disease can present in many different stages. Early localized stage often includes a red ring-like rash (or may resemble a “bull’s eye” target) that slowly expands. Other symptoms include headache, fever, joint or muscle aches and overall not feeling well or excessively tired. If your child develops these symptoms within a few days to weeks after tick exposure you should seek medical attention to evaluate for Lyme disease. Lyme disease is evaluated by medical history, physical examination and sometimes a blood test. It may take the body several weeks to develop antibodies and the blood test may not show up positive early in the disease. Most cases of Lyme disease are easily and successfully treated with a few weeks of antibiotics.

How to prevent a bite

Prevention is the key to avoiding insect bites. I recommend insect repellent that contains at least 20 percent DEET. The higher concentration of DEET does not indicate better repellent; it just means that the repellent will last longer. Most repellents can be used on infants and children older than 2 months. Other effective repellents contain permethrin, picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus and IR3535. Permethrin-treated clothing is an option if the child will be camping or on wooded hikes. Finally, showering or bathing soon after exposure to tick areas is important to check for and remove ticks. Parents should pay close attention and check children for ticks under the arms, in and around the ears, inside the belly button, behind the knees, between the legs, around the waist and especially in their hair on their scalp. Dogs should be treated for ticks, but also checked as the ticks can ride into the home on the dogs then attach to a person later.

How to remove a tick

If you find a tick attached to your child’s skin, there is no need to panic.

  1. Use a fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible.
  2. Pull upward with steady, even pressure. Do not twist or jerk the tick, as this often can cause the tick’s mouth to break off and remain in the skin. If the mouth breaks off: try to remove it. If it cannot be removed easily, don’t dig it out; just wash and allow it to fall out on its own.
  3. After removing the tick, clean the skin with soap and water or rubbing alcohol.

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