Bug off! Dealing with bites and stings in children

Bug off! Dealing with bites and stings in children

Wherever your summer plans take you and your family – beaches, pools, forests, parks – chances are, the insect and arachnid families will be there, too. Bites and stings are unfortunately an expected, yet unpleasant, part of the great outdoors.

The good news is that beyond the temporary discomfort or pain, bug bites and stings generally do not cause long-lasting health problems for children. However, it’s important to recognize the signs of a severe allergic reaction, so you can get your child prompt treatment if necessary.

Common bug bites

What are the common bites and stings you can expect?

Type of bug Reaction Is the bite/sting dangerous?
Flea and bedbug bites Local irritation (some children may not even notice them) Generally not
Tick and mosquito bites Local swelling and itchiness; monitor for a few days in case of a delayed reaction Generally not
Spider bites Swelling No, UNLESS caused by a black widow or brown recluse spider. If you’re not sure, seek medical attention.
Bee and wasp stings Temporary redness, swelling, pain Generally not, but it may cause a severe allergic reaction in certain children.

Preventing bites and stings (as much as possible)

As parents know, there is no foolproof way to prevent the bumps and bruises – and bites and stings – of childhood. So be proactive about prevention, but also be prepared to treat the bites when they happen.

Prevention tips:

  • Stand away from standing water: Avoid areas with stagnant water and wetlands. These are areas where mosquitoes and ticks thrive. For example, if you come across a still puddle of water on a hike, don’t let your children get too close to investigate.
  • Keep away from spiders, bees and wasps: These bugs don’t attack unless they feel threatened. Simply keeping your distance from these critters can lower your chances of getting bitten.
  • Go long: Though it seems counterintuitive in the summer, wear long sleeves and pants when you are hiking or camping in wooded areas. Clothes should be tight fitting, and you can even tuck pants into socks to minimize skin exposure. Bugs can’t bite skin they can’t reach!
  • Bug repellent: Doctors recommend using DEET insect repellents cautiously. Spray them on exposed skin (not on clothing), and only apply them once a day. Unlike sunscreen, which should be reapplied frequently throughout the day, insect repellant should only be used once to avoid toxicity to the skin.

Ouch! Now what?

You took all the necessary precautions, but suddenly you hear the howl. Your child got bitten or stung. Remember to keep calm. Most of the time, the pain or discomfort will recede, sometimes within a few minutes, so it’s important not to panic.

Treating bites or stings is relatively simple:

  1. Clean: As soon as possible after the bite or sting, wash the area with soap and water.
  2. Compress: Apply a cold compress for 15 to 20 minutes.
  3. Apply cream: Use antihistamines or creams to help alleviate itching and reduce swelling. If the itch is severe, use 1 percent hydrocortisone cream.
  4. Take a pain reliever: Acetaminophen such as Tylenol can help relieve pain.

When you’re packing your hiking bags, throw in some pain relievers, antihistamine cream and clean cloths, so you’re ready for anything.

Mild vs. severe allergic reactions

The severity of the reaction depends on two factors:

  • How sensitive your child is to the particular insect venom or substance
  • Whether your child has been stung or bitten more than once

Mild allergic reactions generally include red bumps, itchiness or mild swelling and do not require medical attention. However, if your child experiences the following severe symptoms, seek medical assistance as soon as possible:

  • Swelling of the face, tongue or mouth
  • Difficulty speaking, swallowing, breathing or shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness, wheezing or coughing
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Hives or redness over most of the body
  • Muscles aches or cramps
  • Weakness, fever or chills
  • Nausea and vomiting

If you would like to talk to a pediatric expert about your child’s health, contact the primary and urgent care specialists at Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA. We also invite you to learn more about Pediatric Allergy and Immunology at Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA.


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