Insect bites and stings in the UK

Jane Murphy / 14 May 2018 ( 19 April 2021 )

Wondering what just bit you? Read on to learn how to prevent, identify and treat some of the most common bug attacks in the UK.



Spiders

Don't panic! It's very rare to get bitten by a spider in the UK. Of the 650 species found here, only around 12 have been known to bite humans. One of the best-known culprits is the false widow, but it will only attack if provoked. Spider bites leave small puncture marks, which can become painful and swollen - and some can cause nausea, sweating and dizziness. But most will clear up within 24 hours. Rarely bites can become infected or cause a severe allergic reaction. Get medical help immediately if you have any severe or worrying symptoms after a spider bite.

How to get rid of spiders and deter them

Ticks

Found in grass and woodland, ticks latch on to the skin and suck blood. They resemble very small spiders and can be tricky to spot at first – but can swell to the size of a pea after feeding. Some ticks transmit Lyme disease, a serious bacterial infection, so it's important to remove them promptly. Avoid using ordinary tweezers as it is hard to twist them without separating the tick’s head from its body. Instead use a tick remover, available from pharmacies and pet shops as well as lymediseaseaction.org.uk.

Bite prevention expert Howard Carter advises: ‘Ticks will climb on to any mammal including dogs so to help prevent getting bitten by a tick put insect repellent such as incognito (incognitospray.com) on your dog as well as yourself.’ If you are unlucky enough to get bitten he advises: 'Take the bite out gently and hold it vertically above your skin. The chance of contracting Lyme is far less if you remove the tick without squashing its insides back into your skin.' If you develop flu-like symptoms and/or a red, circular rash around the bite, seek urgent medical advice.

Learn more about Lyme disease

Ladybirds

They may look pretty, but ladybirds do bite – particularly when they can't get enough food or water. Harlequin ladybirds – which are red or orange with white spots on their heads – are the most likely to attack. Their bites can be painful for a few hours, but are rarely cause for concern.

Caterpillars

If you're in the south-east of England, beware of the caterpillars of the oak processionary moth (OPM) – particularly in late spring and summer. They're easy to spot as they move up and down trees in nose-to-tail processions.

The problem? Older caterpillars develop hairs which can cause an itchy rash, eye infections and sore throat, as well as occasional fever and breathing difficulties. The risk is highest in May and June. Report any sightings to the Forestry Commission (www.forestry.gov.uk). For skin or eye irritations caused by OPM check with your local pharmacist. Call NHS 111 or consult your doctor if you think you may be having a severe allergic reaction.

Fleas

Fleas from pets often bite around the ankles. They cause tiny, itchy red lumps that often appear in clusters, which are usually harmless. Check your cat or dog regularly for fleas, and use a good preventative treatment. If you get bitten wash with an antiseptic soap, resist the urge to scratch, apply calamine lotion or an ice pack to soothe swelling and itching. The pharmacists can recommend antihistamine medications to reduce swelling.

Flower bugs

Common flower bugs have tiny oval bodies, reflective wings and orange-brown legs. Their bites can be painful and very itchy, and may take a while to heal – so do take care when you're gardening.

Wasps

Wasp stings cause a sudden, sharp pain followed by a swollen red mark that may be itchy and painful. The discomfort normally only lasts a few hours, but can last a while longer if you experience an allergic reaction. Seek medical advice if you have any concerns.

Bees

Bee stings are very similar to those of wasps, but the sting is often left behind. The trick is to scrape it out sideways with a hard-edged object, such as a bank card. Avoid tweezers as they can spread the venom.

Learn more about bees

Leeches

Although rare, leeches are found in wetland areas of the UK - particularly in Kent. A type of segmented worm, they have large oral suckers, which they use to latch on to the skin and suck blood. Their bites are surprisingly painless.

Spotted one on you? Stay calm! To remove it, slide your fingernail towards the wound and gently push the sucker sideways – then quickly pull the fatter end of the leech away from your skin. Keep the wound clean.

Horseflies

These large, hairy flies known as clegs in Scotland are found around farm animals, ponds and grass – and are particularly pesky when it's hot. Their hugely painful bites cut, rather than pierce, the skin, so take longer to heal and are prone to infection. Red and raised, they can lead to a wheal or wheals in what looks like a nettle rash. Occasionally they can cause dizziness, weakness, wheezing or itchy red, pink or red swelling around the eyes or lips. Consult the pharmacist or doctor if symptoms are severe.

Stable flies

Found around livestock and on beaches, these brown flies have an easy-to-spot proboscis, which they use to deliver a painful, needle-like bite in order to feed on blood. They're particularly active during the daytime and tend to target the lower legs and ankles, so do protect yourself with insect repellent.

Black flies

Found mainly in woodlands, black flies tend to fly in swarms. Their ferocious bites are shallow but sore, and can quickly become swollen, itchy and irritated.

Sand flies

Found on beaches and marshes, these midge-like flies cause raised, red bumps that may turn into a rash. These bites are incredibly itchy and can occasionally become infected. Sand flies are most active around dusk and dawn and tend to target exposed areas such as the face and hands.

Mosquitoes

Mosquito bites are tiny red lumps that can be incredibly itchy and may form blisters. To prevent infection, resist the urge to scratch or burst any blisters. Mosquitoes are most active around dusk and dawn.

Avoid being bitten by covering up with light-coloured clothing, steering clear of fragranced products and using a good repellent. Mosquitoes don't spread disease in the UK – but consult your doctor or travel clinic if you're travelling to a malaria zone abroad.

How to deal with mosquitoes

Midges and gnats

Midges and gnats thrive on damp summer days, often travelling in swarms. Similar to mosquito bites, they cause tiny red lumps that can be painful, itchy and swollen and may develop into blisters. Again, the trick is not to scratch in order to speed up the healing process. Protect yourself by using a citronella soap or body wash and using repellent.

Ants

Common black ants don't bite or sting – but red ants, wood ants and flying ants might do if disturbed or threatened. You'll feel a tiny nip and a pale pink mark may appear on your skin. In rare cases, the bite can become painful, itchy or swollen.

Caution

In most cases, bites or stings will clear up within a few days. Wash the area with soap and water and keep it raised to reduce swelling. Over-the-counter treatments such as anti-itch creams and antihistamines can help. Seek medical advice if symptoms worsen, you have been stung or bitten in your mouth, throat or near your eyes, a large area becomes red or swollen, the area appears infected (pus, increasing pain, swelling or redness are clues) or if you develop fever, swollen glands or other flu-like symptoms.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.