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JAMA Patient Page
July 3, 2013

Insect Bites and Stings

Author Affiliations

Copyright 2013 American Medical Association. All Rights Reserved. Applicable FARS/DFARS Restrictions Apply to Government Use.

JAMA. 2013;310(1):110. doi:10.1001/2012.jama.10800

Insects, including mosquitoes, lice, ticks, fleas, bees, wasps, and bedbugs, live all over the world. They can be found in cities and rural areas; outdoors or inside any type of home, dwelling, or shelter; and in both developed countries and the developing world.

Because insects live everywhere, insect bites and stings are very common. Insect bites and stings can be very painful, can cause blisters or necrosis (tissue death), and can cause allergic reactions.

Insects carry diseases on their bodies, in their blood, in their saliva, or in their venom. When an insect bites an animal or a human, those diseases can be transmitted (passed on from the insect). Sometimes the organisms that cause a disease (bacteria, viruses, or parasites) stay in the animal or human without causing that disease. That type of infected animal or human is called a host. Usually, insect bites infect a person or an animal and produce the symptoms of a disease. Insect bites are responsible for causing many types of diseases and therefore lead to illness and death for millions of people worldwide.

Some Important Insect-Borne Diseases

  • Malaria

  • West Nile virus

  • Yellow fever

  • Dengue fever

  • Lyme disease

  • Rocky Mountain spotted fever

  • Chagas disease

  • Plague

  • Viral encephalitis

  • River blindness (onchocerciasis)

  • Leishmaniasis

First Aid for Insect Bites and Stings

  • If a person receives a large number of bee stings, if the stings are in the mouth or throat, or if a person experiences shortness of breath or throat swelling after an insect bite or sting, call 911 in the United States or Canada for emergency assistance.

  • Quickly remove any part of a bee stinger left in the skin.

  • Cleanse the area with soap and water.

  • Use caution removing ticks from under the skin so that no part of the tick body is left there.

  • Apply ice to the area to relieve pain.

  • Over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen can be used.

  • For guidance in the United States, you can reach a poison center by calling (800) 222-1222.

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For More Information

To find this and previous JAMA Patient Pages, go to the Patient Page index on JAMA’s website at www.jama.com. Many are available in English and Spanish. A Patient Page on bedbugs was published in the April 1, 2009, issue; one on West Nile virus in the July 23/30, 2003, issue; one on Lyme disease in the June 20, 2007, issue; and one on malaria in the November 10, 2010, issue.

The JAMA Patient Page is a public service of JAMA. The information and recommendations appearing on this page are appropriate in most instances, but they are not a substitute for medical diagnosis. For specific information concerning your personal medical condition, JAMA suggests that you consult your physician. This page may be photocopied noncommercially by physicians and other health care professionals to share with patients. To purchase bulk reprints, call 312/464-0776.
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Article Information

Sources: World Health Organization, American College of Emergency Physicians, National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Topic: Emergency Medicine