Simple tips will take the sting out of bug bites

July 02, 2004

Each time we walk outside, my kids want to know what to expect.

Will this bug bite me? Will it hurt?

Anyone who has dealt with the itchy bumps and other irritations associated with bug bites knows that their concerns are not unfounded.

"Once you step outside your house, you are in someone else's environment," says skin toxicologist Steve Pennisi. "When we invade their home, they get defensive."

Kids should know that there is a difference between bugs that sting and bugs that bite, Pennisi says.

A bug that stings is being defensive. It wants something you have, or it wants you to leave the area. Bees, wasps and yellow jackets are examples of this kind of bug. Our food is their food.


A bug that bites is after blood. Deer ticks and female mosquitoes fall in this category. Our blood is their food.

If bees, wasps or hornets seem to be focusing on a particular food at your picnic, make a decoy plate to satisfy their hunger and to give you some peace.

These insects are highly attracted to sweet foods, such as those containing barbecue sauce.

A decoy plate can simply be a small portion of food that is on the table. Allow the insects to be drawn to it and then move the plate about 10 to 15 yards away from your gathering.

It helps to keep all other containers tightly covered until you move the decoy plate and the insects are enjoying their meal. Allow the bugs to eat in peace so you can eat in peace.

The individual who moves the plate must be brave because there is a possibility that he could be stung in transit.

If the sting is from a honeybee, the bee's stinger should be removed as quickly as possible. In addition to the stinger, part of the bee's abdomen could be in the skin. The muscles of the abdomen continue to contract, releasing poison at the sting site.

Other bugs do not lose their stingers and can sting repeatedly. To reduce the chance of repeated stings, leave the area immediately.

Ice or something cold from your cooler will reduce swelling and will lessen pain and itching later on.

To treat a sting, select an antiseptic - for pain and itching - with antibacterial ingredients.

The antibacterial element will prevent infection in case the urge to itch is overpowering and there is dirt on hands or under tiny fingernails.

If the person who is stung appears to have difficulty breathing or chest pains, he should seek medical attention.

Here are some other tips from Pennisi:

  • Never leave a can of soda or juice unattended. That is an irresistible draw for an insect that stings. If you pick up a can to take a drink and the bug is inside, you'll probably end up with a sore lip.

  • Avoid wearing contrasting colors because bugs can more easily pick up on the contrast than they can a solid color.

    Think about it, Pennisi says. If a flower is in front of a green background, it's easier for the bug to see from a distance. As he gets closer, he begins to smell the plant's sweet aroma, which brings us to our next tip.

  • Don't wear heavy or sweet-smelling perfumes. These attract bugs.

  • Because a child may not know how to identify a bee hive or a hornet's nest, look at photographs together in an encyclopedia or a picture book from the library. Knowing what to stay away from could be the best way to prevent a painful sting.

Pennisi is director of the Lanacane Itch Information Center. More information on this topic is available at on the Web.

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at

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