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Home Remedies for TREATING Insect Bites/Stings

By Rod Moser, PA, PhDJune 22, 2011
From the WebMD Archives

When it comes to offering home remedies, many people immediately become pharmacists or doctors. So far, I have blogged about treating sunburn and preventing insect bites (like mosquitoes). But what happens if the bugs bite you anyway? Obviously, there are plentiful home remedies for treatment as well.

My Appalachian youth was rich in home remedies, handed down from my grandmother (and probably from her grandmother). Many home treatments apparently got lost in oral translation. We rarely wore shoes in the summer. Since our lawn areas were filled with clover, it was inevitable that you would get a honey bee sting. In rained in Pennsylvania a few times a week which created puddles and moist areas favored by mosquitoes. Spiders (not an insect, incidentally) and wasps moved into the cabins that we made in the woods. Needless to say, we got bit and stung…often.

I would run (hop, actually) into the house, where my mother would make a paste out of baking soda and water, and apply it to the sting. If I was out and about, I would just put cool mud on it.

Up until my high school years, bee stings were only a temporary reminder that shoes are important. I would get a painful, swollen foot for a while, followed by several days of itching to drive the lesson home. In high school, I had a summer job that required feeding a variety of animals. One day, I stepped onto a ground nest of yellow jackets. I was wearing shoes, but they flew up may pant leg and stung me repeatedly. I whipped off my trousers like they were on fire. I was covered by hives.

A few minutes later, I started to itch all over; in places were I was not stung. My scalp, my back, the palms of my hands, and my face was itching like crazy, making me into this scratching maniac. I grabbed a brush that I used to curry the horses and used it as a back scratcher to the point where my skin was bleeding. A more-knowledgeable adult decided that I should go to the emergency room. A quick injection of epinephrine (Adrenalin) and Benadryl settled me down.

A few days later, I was stung by a yellow jacket again. This time, I was only stung once on the tip of my finger. Thinking I would be getting those itchy hives again, I waited. I was right, but this time my neck began to swell to the point where my chin was at the same level as my chest. I began to have breathing difficulties. This is a true, anaphylactic reaction. It was back to the emergency room again. I remember receiving just one piece of advice: Stay away from bees (Doh!). This is why doctors earn the big bucks.

Four decades later, I was still packing an EpiPen, at least until my HMO insurance company turned it down as a covered prescription. The pharmacist wanted to charge me $135 for 25 cents worth of epinephrine. Of course, being the in the medical profession, I ordered some epinephrine and made my own EpiPen. I was able to buy two dozen vials of epinephrine for about $12. Unfortunately, non-medical people do not have access to these high-level home remedies.

Prevention is much easier than treatment, but prevention is rarely 100% when it comes to bites and stings. Most people have their own home remedies, unless of course, you have a history of anaphylactic reactions, in which case, home remedies have absolutely no place in your first-aid kit. You better have that EpiPen and some antihistamines handy.

As I suspected, many of the same home remedies used for treating sunburn are the same as for insect bites. For mosquito bites, people are using Scope mouthwash, hairspray, Preparation H, Clorox, and dryer sheets. I would like to meet the person (probably a woman) who has a bulging purse containing these things, just in case. Additionally, home remedies for mosquito bites also include aspirin or Alka Seltzer (contains aspirin) made into a poultice, toothpaste, honey, tobacco (mixed with saliva, of course), chilies, lavender or rosemary oil, tea tree oil, tea bags, onion, salt, roll-on deodorant, lemon juice, vinegar, meat tenderizer, baking soda, banana peels, and myrrh (not frankincense or gold, apparently). One home “surgeon” suggested sticking a sterilized needle into the wound and sucking out the poison using a vacuum pump. There are a few hundred more that I have not listed.

For bee or wasp stings, home remedies include ice, mud, meat tenderizer (again), and of course, a disgusting wad of tobacco/saliva.

Do these things work? The simple answers are no, maybe, and yes. I have personally tried meat tenderizer for non-Yellow Jacket stings (remember that I am allergic to them), and found it helpful (maybe). My anecdotal experience is not scientific evidence of efficacy. I have used baking soda mixed with water in a paste, assuming I am home. I do carry or have a box of baking soda in my first-aid kit. Would the aspirin paste work? Perhaps, since aspirin is an anti-inflammatory drug. Again, I don’t carry aspirin around either. Preparation H is best used for ‘roids, in a place that people are rarely, if ever, stung.

What does work for minor, localized insect bite reactions? Start with ice, if you have it, or a cold can of soda applied to the site. A can of cold beer would also work. If you have some hydrocortisone cream, apply it to the bite site. If you are home, keep the hydrocortisone cream in the refrigerator to keep it cold. Do not do this if you have a teenager who may mistake the tube for squirt cheese. If you are prone to itching, take some Benadryl (assuming you do not have to drive).

If you have ever had a serious allergic response in the past, you need to have an EpiPen, or marry a medical provider that carries his/her well-stocked black bag. Every year, more people die or have serious allergic reactions to bees, than rattlesnake bites. Incidentally, there are not good home remedies for rattlesnake bites.

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