Compared with people in many other countries, we in Britain are lucky in having relatively few biting or stinging insects. Venomous snakes, spiders and such like are also thin on the ground or non-existent.
However, I did say ‘relatively’ few. That still leaves us with around 33 different kinds of mosquito – commonly known as gnats; about 43 types of midge, six species of wasp, several kinds of bee, not to mention biting horseflies and stinging ants. Jellyfish and poisonous fish can be a hazard too and, especially as more and more of us are taking our holidays abroad, it is important to know what to do if the need arises.
Creatures that sting do so to protect themselves, insects that bite do so to feed. With mosquitoes, midges and horseflies it is only the female that bites; she needs the blood that a good bite gives her in order to rear her young – no consolation to us as we scratch away!
But whether the attack takes the form of a bite or a sting, the result is the same – a hot, red, swollen, itchy area and sometimes, more serious consequences. In the case of a sting, the symptoms are the result of the body’s reaction to the poison injected; with a bite, they are due to an anti-clotting substance in the insect’s saliva which it injects to make the blood – your blood! – flow more easily as it feeds. Although it is not poisonous, this substance can provoke an allergic-type response around the bite and occasionally throughout the body. Fortunately, mosquitoes in Britain do not carry disease.
When you are bitten early in the season, you are more likely to react and find yourself scratching than later on in the summer. This is because your body gradually develops some tolerance, particularly to your local gnats and midges. However this will not help you when you visit a different area and get bitten by an unfamiliar species!
Some people seem to be more attractive to biting insects than others and individuals differ in how much they react. In general, though, insect-repellants should protect you for about two hours and, if you are bitten, iced water or witch-hazel, calamine lotion or soothing antiseptic creams will usually calm the irritation. Try your best not to scratch either bites or stings, or you may introduce infection.
A bee only stings as a last resort, as it leaves its sting behind and dies soon afterwards. Remove the sting with a fingernail by scraping it out sideways and in the direction the sting is pointing outwards, rather than pinching and pulling it out, as this can squeeze the remaining venom into the skin. To counteract the acid in a bee sting, apply ice-cold water containing a little bicarbonate of soda. Wasp stings are alkaline, so bathe them with a little vinegar in ice-cold water. It doesn’t leave its sting behind, just a chemical irritant.
Remedies from the chemist are soothing. They tend to be antihistamine medicines or creams, made specifically for bites and stings, to combat any allergic reactions. They can also reduce more severe swelling and irritation and some contain local anaesthetics to ease pain or irritation. The effects of a sting will usually disappear after a few hours.
However, a few people develop an allergy to wasp or bee stings and can then have an extreme, even life-threatening reaction which may come on only seconds after the sting. The sufferer may feel dizzy and sick, have a runny, itchy nose and eyes and develop a rash. Their limbs may swell, they may have difficulty breathing and even lose consciousness. If any of these symptoms occur after being stung, it is essential to get to a hospital with an accident and emergency unit (casualty department) or to a doctor immediately.
Similarly, for stings in the mouth, multiple stings or if a child under the age of two is stung, it is best to seek medical advice without delay.
Swimming can be a risky business in some waters. If you are stung by a jellyfish you may not feel it at the time but if you develop a painful, swollen area on your body and perhaps a temperature after swimming in the sea, do consult a doctor.
Stinging fish exist even around the British coast and if you tread on one you will certainly know it – the pain is excruciating. The best treatment is to immerse the stung part in very hot – but not scalding – water. This will quickly deactivate the venom.
Snake bites in Britain are unlikely to be too serious – the adder is our only venomous snake. But common first-aid measures such as sucking the wound or making an incision with a razor blade to squeeze out the venom can do more harm than good. It’s best just to immobilise the bitten limb with a splint or sling and take the person straight to hospital.
Of course, bites and stings are best avoided altogether and the following tips should help: Don’t use perfume, hair sprays or aftershave when bees or wasps are around, as they can be attracted by the scent. Bright colours may also attract insects, so wear pale clothes that cover your arms and legs against gnats and midges, especially if you seem prone to insect bites. Examine food and sweet drinks before putting them in your mouth and wipe food off your lips if eating out of doors. Don’t panic if bees or wasps buzz around you and don’t hit out at them. Either ignore them or walk away. And a final safeguard, wear shoes in the garden and when paddling – particularly in rock pools.
AllerEze, Anethane Itch-Soothing Cream, Anthisan, Caladryl, Cupal Insect-Bite Cream, Der- macort, Hc45 Hydrocortisone Cream, Lacto Calamine, Lanacane, Lanacort, Lana-Sting Spray and crème, RBC, Listerine Antiseptic, Dusk Insect-Repellant Cream, Men-tholatum Vapour Rub, Solarcaine, Triludan, Triludan Forte, Wasp-Eze, Witch Doctor
Anthisan, AllerEze, Triludan
Apis. Mel., Pyrethrum Liquid -applied to the area immediately Herbal Remedies
Combudoron Lotion, Dr Valnet’s Tega-rome, Dr Valnet’s Volarome Insect Repellant, Soothene Ointment