Apr 6, 2018, 2:12:11 PM CDT May 31, 2024, 10:40:32 AM CDT

Treating bug bites and stings in children

How to care for your child's insect bite or sting at home – and when to call the doctor

Mother spraying daughter with bug spray at the park Mother spraying daughter with bug spray at the park

As the weather gets warmer, it's not only kids who come out to play – all the creepy-crawlies do, too. With all sorts of bugs flying and crawling around playgrounds and your backyard, your child might be more at risk of a bug bite or sting during the warmer months.

Most insect bites cause minor discomfort and can be treated at home. But parents should educate themselves on the different types of bites and stings so they can recognize signs of a serious reaction.

Use this quick guide to determine what type of insect bit your child, how to treat bug bites and how to help prevent future bites.

How to identify bug bites and stings

Many insects and spiders have painful bites that often result in red and swollen spots. Identify the most common types of bug bites with these tips:

  • Bees: Bee stings can cause immediate swelling, redness and pain. You may notice a stinger or indentation in the middle of the swelling. Bees are commonly found near flowers, shrubs, picnic areas and beaches.
  • Fire ants: Fire ant bites immediately burn and cause pain. You may notice cloudy fluid around the swollen area. If your child has dozens of fire ant bites, they may need to see a doctor. Watch for fire ants in pastures, meadows, lawns and parks.
  • Mosquitoes: Mosquito bites may not cause immediate problems, but will become red, swollen and itchy later. Mosquitoes are generally found near water and are attracted to bright colors and scents.
  • Spiders: You may not notice spider bites at first. However, if your child experiences a painful, red area filled with fluid and surrounded by a red or purple ring (like a target), they need to see a physician about the bite.
  • Ticks: Ticks are often still attached to the area they have bitten and can be hidden in hair or on the skin. Use tweezers to grasp the tick by the head and slowly pull it off your child. Keep the tick in case it needs to be tested for diseases. If your child has spent any time in wooded or very grassy areas, you should carefully check their whole body for ticks.
  • Wasps: Wasps, like bees, may leave a stinger or indentation behind. Their stings also cause immediate pain and swelling. Like bees, wasps are commonly found near flowers, shrubs, picnic areas and beaches.

Honeybees and wasps are the most likely to cause painful stings. Unfortunately, their stings are also the most likely to cause severe allergic reaction. Learn more about identifying and treating chigger bites.

Signs of an allergic reaction to a bug bite

An allergic reaction to a bug bite can be a medical emergency. Your child may be experiencing an anaphylactic (life-threatening) reaction if he or she has symptoms like:

  • Confusion
  • Coughing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Headache
  • Hives all over the body
  • Slurred speech
  • Swollen tongue, lips or eyes
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Vomiting
  • Wheezing

If your child shows any of these symptoms, call 911 right away.

You should also visit the doctor if your child is stung on the eye, mouth or throat, even if they are not allergic to bug bites.

How to treat insect stings and bites

If your child isn't experiencing an allergic reaction, you can likely treat the sting or bite at home.

To treat the sting, first ensure you have removed the stinger by gently rubbing a flat object like a credit card across the sting. Next, clean the sting or bite site with soap and water and apply an antibiotic cream. You can help your child with pain by putting ice on the site. If your child was stung on the arm or leg, they can elevate that limb to help reduce swelling.

Many insect stings and bites itch afterward. You can apply bug bite or antihistamine lotion to the site to help stop itching. You may also give your child an age-appropriate dose of acetaminophen or an antihistamine to help with pain and itching.

Most symptoms of bug bites should pass within a few hours or days. However, if swelling, redness or pain gets worse – or if your child experiences a fever, rash or fatigue – contact your child’s pediatrician. Certain bugs, such as mosquitoes and ticks, can transmit diseases including West Nile virus, Zika virus and Lyme disease.

Preventing future insect bites

You can help children become less of a target for insects by following a few simple rules:

  • Don't let them wear bright clothing outdoors.
  • Avoid using heavily scented soaps or sweet-smelling perfumes and lotions.
  • Ensure they wear shoes when playing outside.
  • Cover arms and legs as much as possible.
  • Spray them with a children's insect repellant.

You should also teach your child to calmly walk away from bugs and never try to touch bugs. Teach them what an ant mound, wasp nest and beehive look like, so they know to stay away from them.

You can also take steps to reduce the number of insects in your yard by treating for wasps, spiders and mosquitoes. Be sure to research which types of treatments are safe for kids, as well as for pets if you have them. To help prevent mosquitoes, you should also ensure there is no standing water in your yard.

It’s not recommended that you destroy or remove beehives or wasp nests on your own. You should call a professional with experience to remove these items and make your backyard a safer place to play.

Learn more

Children's Health Primary Care offers comprehensive health care for children from birth through young adulthood. Our pediatricians combine quality care with evidence-based practice to meet your child’s medical needs. Learn more and find a pediatrician.

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