It’s the holidays and we’re spending more time outdoors. This means we’re exposed to the more annoying and painful aspects of summer — insect bites and stings.
There are plenty of products at the local pharmacy to treat these. Some treat the initial bite or sting, others the itchy aftermath.
What about natural remedies? Few studies have actually examined them. But if they work for you, and don’t irritate already inflamed skin, there’s likely no harm in continuing.
Why do insects bite and sting?
When insects bite and sting, they are either defending themselves or need something from us (like blood).
Whatever the motivation, it can leave us with a painful or itchy reaction, sometimes a severe allergic reaction, or even a debilitating disease.
While insects sometimes get a bad rap, there are relatively few that actually pose a serious threat to our health.
Many types of flies, especially mosquitoes, bite. In most instances, they need blood for nutrition or the development of eggs. The method of “biting” can vary between the different types of flies. While mosquitoes inject a needle-like tube to suck our blood, others chew or rasp away at our skin.
While researchers have studied what happens when mosquitoes bite, there is still much to learn about how to treat the bites.
So, avoiding mosquito bites is especially important given some can transmit pathogens that make us sick.
Fleas, lice, mites and ticks
There are lots of other insects (such as bed bugs, fleas, lice) and other arthropods (such as mites, ticks) that bite.
But it is difficult to determine which insect has bitten us based on the bite reaction alone. This is generally because different people react in different ways to the saliva injected as they start to suck our blood.
Bees, wasps, ants
Then there are stinging insects, such as bees, wasps and ants. These are typically just defending themselves.
But as well as being painful, the venom they inject when they sting can cause potentially severe allergic reactions.
How do you best treat a sting or bite?
If you suffer potentially severe allergic reactions from bites or stings, immediately seek appropriate medical treatment. But for many other people, it is the initial painful reaction and itchy aftermath that require attention.
Despite how common insect bites can be, there is surprisingly little formal research into how best to treat them. Most of the research is focused on insect-borne diseases.
Even for recommended treatments, there is little evidence they actually work. Instead, recommendations are based on expert opinion and clinical experience.
For instance, heath authorities promote some general advice on treating insect bites and stings. This includes using pain relief medication (such as paracetamol or ibuprofen). They also advise applying a cold compress (such as a cold pack, ice, or damp cloth soaked in cold water) to the site of the sting or bite to help reduce the inflammation and to ease some of the discomfort.
However, if you do nothing, the discomfort of the bite or sting will eventually fade after a few days. The body quickly recovers, just as it would for a cut or bruise.
If you’re still in pain for more than a couple of days, or there are signs of an allergic reaction, seek medical assistance.
What about the itch?
Once the initial pain has started to fade, the itch starts. That’s because the body is reacting to the saliva injected when insects bite.
For many people, this is incredibly frustrating and it is all too easy to get trapped in a cycle of itching and scratching.
Do any home remedies work?
If you’re looking for a home remedy to treat insect bites and the itchiness that comes with it, a quick internet search will keep you busy for days.
Potential home remedies include: tea bags, banana, tea tree or other essential oils, a paste of baking soda, vinegar, aloe vera, oatmeal, honey and even onion.
There is little evidence any of these work. But not many have actually been scientifically evaluated.
However, if a home remedy works for you, and it’s not causing additional irritation, there’s no harm in using it if you’re getting some relief.
With so much uncertainty about how to treat insect bites and stings, perhaps it is best if we avoid exposure in the first place. There are plenty of insect repellents available at your local pharmacy or supermarket that do this safely and effectively.
A range of shirts, pants, socks and accessories sold in specialist camping and fishing retailers claim to protect against mosquito bites for various periods.
In regions experiencing a high risk of mosquito-borne disease, insecticide treated school uniforms have been used to help provide extra protection for students.
Some academics have even suggested fashion designers be encouraged to design attractive and innovative “mosquito-proof” clothing.
But while the technology has promise, commercially available mosquito-repellent clothing isn’t the answer to all our mozzie problems.
Some items of clothing might offer some protection from mosquito bites, but it’s unclear if they offer enough protection to reduce the risk of disease. And you’ll still need to use repellent on those uncovered body parts.
First came mosquito-proof beds
Bed nets have been used to create a barrier between people and biting mosquitoes for centuries. This was long before we discovered mosquitoes transmitted pathogens that cause fatal and debilitating diseases such as malaria. Preventing nuisance-biting and buzzing was reason alone to sleep under netting.
Bed nets have turned out to be a valuable tool in reducing malaria in many parts of the world. And they offer better protection if you add insecticides.
The insecticide of choice is usually permethrin. This and other closely related synthetic pyrethroids are commonly used for pest control and have been assessed as safe for use by the United States Environmental Protection Authority, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority and other regulatory bodies.
New technologies have also allowed for the development of long-lasting insecticidal bed nets, offering extended protection against mosquito bites, perhaps up to three years, even with repeated washing.
Mosquito repellent clothing
Innovations in clothing that prevent insect bites have primarily come from the United States military. Mosquito-borne disease is a major concern for military around the globe. Much research funding has been invested in strategies to provide the best protection for personnel.
Traditional insect repellents, such as DEET or picaridin, are applied to the skin to prevent mosquitoes from landing and biting.
While permethrin will repel some mosquitoes, treated clothing most effectively works by killing the mosquitoes landing and trying to bite through the fabric.
Clothing treated with permethrin has been shown to protect against mosquitoes and ticks, as well as other biting insects and mites. For these studies, clothing was generally soaked in solutions or sprayed with insecticides to ensure adequate protection.
Fabrics factory-treated with insecticides, as used by many military forces, are purported to provide more effective protection. But while some studies suggest clothing made from these fabrics provide protection even after multiple washes, others suggest the “factory-treated” fabrics don’t provide greater levels of protection than “do it yourself” versions.
Overall, the current evidence suggests insecticide-treated clothing may reduce the number of mosquito bites you get, but it doesn’t offer full protection.
More research is needed to determine if insecticide-treated clothing can prevent or reduce rates of mosquito-borne disease.
Better labelling and regulation
All products that claim to provide protection from insect bites must be registered with the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority. This includes sprays, creams and roll-on formulations of repellents.
Anything labelled as “insect repelling”, including insecticide treated clothing, requires registration. Clothing marketed as simply “protective” (such as hats with netting) doesn’t. This approach reflects the requirements of the US EPA.
If you’re shopping for insect-repellent clothing, check the label to see if it states that it is registered by the APVMA. You should see a registration number and the insecticide used in the fabric clearly displayed on the clothing’s tag.
While some products will be registered, there are still some concerns about how the efficacy of mosquito bite protection is assessed.
There is likely to be growing demand for these types of products and experts are calling for internationally accepted guidelines to test these products. Similar guidelines exist for topical repellents.
Finally, keep in mind that while various forms of insecticide-treated clothing will help reduce the number of mosquito bites, they won’t provide a halo of bite-free protection around your whole body.
Remember to apply a topical insect repellent to exposed areas of skin, such as hands and face, to ensure you’re adequately protected from mosquito bites.
If you haven’t heard of the Lord Howe Island stick insect, you have missed out on one of the most remarkable conservation stories of the decade.
This week’s news is that breeding colonies of Australia’s rarest insect will soon be established in zoos at San Diego, Toronto and Bristol. These new colonies will join those at the Melbourne Zoo and the Lord Howe Island Museum to ensure the future of this unique species.
The remarkable story of these stick insects (which are also called phasmids or land lobsters) started when rats escaped from a shipwreck in 1918 and proceeded to eat every last stick insect on Lord Howe Island. The species was thought to be extinct until a few live specimens were discovered on Balls Pyramid in 2001. The news headline in the Sydney Morning Herald at the time proclaimed: “Joy as ancient ‘walking sausage’ found alive.”
This remote and almost inaccessible population was the key to survival for the phasmids, but presented enormous difficulties for scientists who wanted to study them. Eventually an expedition was arranged to collect live specimens, which had to be done at night when the insects are out of their burrows and active.
The story of the captive breeding program is almost heart-stopping with many twists and turns. The original pair held at the Melbourne zoo were named Adam and Eve and because almost nothing was known of their lifestyle and habits, trial and error and careful observation were needed to provide them with appropriate care. At one point Eve nearly died but was revived when zookeeper Patrick Rohan carefully dropped a mixture of sugar, calcium and ground melaleuca leaves into her mouth.
Eve’s first egg hatched on Threatened Species Day on 2003, and although this wasn’t the end of the challenges facing Melbourne Zoo staff, it turned out to be the beginning of hope for the species’ successful captive breeding program.
I became personally acquainted with these insects when the zoo allowed selected schools to hatch some eggs and one of the babies spent time at my house. A film of her first steps and the story of our excitement was published here in 2012.
The Lord Howe stick insects start out small and green but grow up fat and black. They spend their days curled up together in burrows and head out at night to feed. Their story has caught the attention of David Attenborough and Jane Goodall.
New books about Lord Howe Stick Insects
If you want to know all about the story of the Lord Howe Stick Insects, two recent books are ready for you to devour.
For adults, Return of the Phasmid: Australia’s rarest insect fights back from the brink of extinction, by Rick Wilkinson provides a comprehensive and fascinating summary of the history, geology and human drama involved in this story, complete with great photos and personal accounts. Anyone who wants to understand what it takes to bring a species back from the brink will find it great reading.
Additionally and delightfully, the invertebrate zookeeper Rohan Cleave has released a children’s book, Phasmid: Saving the Lord Howe Stick Insect, with lovely watercolour illustrations that bring phasmids to life for young hearts.
Soon these books will become important in a global context, as people in San Diego, Toronto and Bristol get to meet our very own ‘walking sausages’.