How to Treat and Prevent Insect Bites and Stings

24/04/17

By Nicky Jacquiery

Continuing with the theme of staying healthy on your walk, in this article I’m going to focus on insects. I’m referring in particular to midges, mosquitoes, ticks, horseflies, hornets, wasps and bees, since these are the ones you’re most likely to encounter and at certain times of the year, you can’t avoid them. Late spring, summer and even early autumn are when they tend to be particularly active, which unfortunately coincides with when most people are out walking. Given that the days are lengthening and, if like me, you’re planning on spending more time outdoors, now is a good opportunity to remind ourselves of the precautions we should take to prevent insect bites and stings and what we should do to treat them.

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As a general rule, try to cover up as much as possible and apply insect repellent to any exposed areas. There are many brands of insect repellent on the market and it’s entirely up to you what you use. Personally, I prefer a natural repellent that contains citronella rather than some of the more common chemical varieties that rely on DEET. Although more effective, DEET can harm synthetic fibres, so be careful when applying it while you’re wearing your outdoor clothes. I once ruined a pair of polypropylene long johns through contact with a bottle of highly concentrated DEET repellent, hence my preference now for organic varieties. I’d also advise wearing a hat and sunglasses. A hat, especially if it has a peaked cap, and sunglasses prevent insects flying into your eyes, which if they do can be particularly irritating.

Of all the insects that have the potential to ruin a good walk in the UK, the midge is the one that does it for me! If you enjoy walking in Scotland you’ll know what I’m talking about. Midges are tiny blood-sucking insects; although they’re only about 1-2mm in size, they can cause misery especially when they attack in numbers! They’re more prolific in lowland areas near standing water and when it’s warm, damp and still. However, even a slight breeze is enough to keep them away, and providing you keep walking you shouldn’t be bothered by them. Whilst I’m happy to spend a whole day out walking I do need to stop and have my lunch, which is when you’ll typically encounter midges, as well as any other time you stop. I have been known to wear a head net – not recommended for when you’re trying to eat – and to walk about while eating my sandwiches! Bear in mind that midges are also attracted to dark clothing so wear light-coloured clothing if you can. Midge bites will typically manifest themselves as small red lumps that are extremely itchy and, I find, virtually impossible to avoid scratching. Antihistamine creams and other products are available that you can apply to the affected area to reduce the itching. I also find tea tree oil is effective.

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Midges are not to be confused with mosquitoes, which are larger and make an annoying whining noise whenever they come near your ears. Like midges, they feed on your blood and will leave behind a painful, itchy bite. As with most other insects, the most important step is to cover up, especially around your ankles and wrists. Mosquitoes tend to come out around dawn and dusk, and although these are not popular times for walking, mosquitoes have been known to spoil a post-walk drink sat outside the pub!

An insect that you need to be aware of, if you’re not already, is the tick. These are normally found in grass and woodland areas where the animals they feed on live, most commonly sheep and deer. About the size of a pinhead, they are blood-sucking creatures, which can spread infections and cause disease, most notably Lyme disease. The best course of action to avoid being bitten is to cover up, so wear long sleeves and long trousers that you can tuck into your socks. Check for ticks regularly throughout your walk and especially when you get home. Ticks tend to be found in skin folds such as knees and elbows and the groin area. If you do find a tick, remove it with a specially designed tick remover that can be bought from most outdoor shops. Grip the tick as close to the skin as possible and pull it out gradually, trying not to break the tick or leave any of it behind. Only a small percentage of ticks carry Lyme disease, but be sure to check for flu-like symptoms and a rash around the tick bite just in case. Whilst I have been bitten countless times by midges, I have never in all my years spent in the outdoors been bitten by a tick. Quite how I’ve managed it I don’t know, especially given that my walking companions have been bitten. Clearly, they’re a lot tastier than I am!

Another troublesome insect that you may come across on your walk are horseflies, commonly found in areas where there are horses or livestock. These can be confused with hornets on account of their aggressive nature. No doubt there are many of you who, like me, will have been chased by both! Horseflies can bite through clothing and will leave a welt behind that is usually itchy and painful for several days. If you can, clean the affected area as soon as possible to prevent infection.

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Unlike horseflies that bite, hornets and wasps will sting you. The hornet is renowned for being more aggressive because its sting contains much more venom than that of a wasp, and is more painful because of this. Both hornets and wasps will often try to sting you more than once, plus their venom contains a pheromone that rallies all their mates to come and join in as well! This explains why when you stop for lunch you’ll often find yourself fighting off not just one but several wasps, especially if you have something sugary that they seem particularly attracted to. In contrast, bees sting just the once and leave their sting behind. Remove the sting by scraping something hard across the skin rather than trying to squeeze it, as this will just cause more venom to be released. If you wish you can apply a local antihistamine cream to ease the discomfort.

Remember, in most situations, insects in the UK are irritating rather than life threatening and providing we take the proper precautions, an insect bite or sting is not normally a cause for concern. On the other hand, if someone has an allergic reaction to an insect bite or sting, it’s an entirely different matter. In such cases it’s important that you know what to do and seek medical help immediately if one of your walking companions has a severe allergic reaction.





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