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Insect bites and pet allergies

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Insect bites

Almost everyone is familiar with the discomfort of insect bites, especially during the summer months. For most people an insect bite does not present any alarming problems apart from a little pain and irritation, however, there is a small minority of people who suffer allergic reactions to insect bites, known as Hymenoptera and for them bites and stings can be very dangerous.

What are pet allergies?

Pet allergies affect around 10% of the UK adult population, the most common are allergies to domestic pets, especially cats and dogs. However, allergies to other animals such as horses, mice, hamsters and birds can also occur. Guinea pigs and gerbils are more popular these days as pets, and they can also cause allergic reactions in some people.Click here for more information on pet allergies

What is a normal reaction to an insect bite?

Most people who get stung will experience some pain or discomfort, the skin around the bite usually turns red and swells up. This is not dangerous and can usually be treated with a cream or spray available from the local chemist.

What are the symptoms of an allergic reaction to an insect bite?

Allergic reactions to insect bites can vary in each person and unfortunately there is no way of knowing if you are allergic to a sting, until you have been stung. There is not usually a dangerous allergic reaction after the first sting though it may still be painful. However, on subsequent stings an allergic reaction may occur, which can sometimes lead to anaphylaxis.

The first symptoms you experience will be similar to those of a normal reaction, though they could be more severe and you may develop blisters. Further symptoms of an allergic reaction to a insect bite, usually occur within 10 minutes of the sting and may include any of the following :-

  • A feeling of dizziness, sometimes resulting in fainting.
  • A rash anywhere on the body.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Swelling in parts of the body, such as the lips, eyelids, tongue and throat.
  • In severe cases, the person suffering from the sting can have breathing difficulties due to the throat swelling (anaphylaxis).
  • Weakness, caused by a extreme drop in blood pressure.

If you believe you have had an allergic reaction because of an insect bite, you should consult your doctor for advice. An allergic reaction tends to get worse with each sting you get in the future. You are more at risk of a severe allergic reaction to bee or wasp stings if you are already allergic to food, pollen or other substances.

What insects do I need to look out for?

Wasp and bee stings tend to be the most painful of insect bites. Bumblebees are not very aggressive and stings from them are rare, wasps on the other hand are quite aggressive and are the most common type of sting.

What about mosquitoes and other insects?

The bites of most insects, including the mosquito, fleas, flies and bedbugs, though irritating, usually pose very little danger in the way of an allergic reaction. The mosquito feeds off your blood, but before it sucks the blood up, it injects a tiny sample of its saliva under your skin. It is the injected saliva that causes the classic symptoms of a bite: itchy, red skin. It was once thought that the mosquito could transmit the H.I.V. virus but this is not the case. However, in some countries the mosquito can transmit diseases such as malaria (for more information on malaria click here).

What treatments are available for insect bites?

Most bites from wasps, bees or other insects will not require any special treatment. However, the following will help relieve symptoms :-

  • Apply a cold compress to the bite/sting.
  • Clean the wound thoroughly with soap and water.
  • If the sting is still present, remove it immediately. Avoid squeezing the stinger, as this will inject more venom.
  • Apply an antiseptic cream to help avoid infection.
  • Calamine lotion, available from chemists can be used to soothe the itch.
  • Antihistamine creams can be used to relieve pain.
  • You can take painkillers such as aspirin or paracetamol to ease the discomfort.
  • If you are stung in the mouth or throat, try to suck ice cubes/ice lolly or drink cold water while you are waiting for medical attention. You must seek further medical attention in this situation.

All people who have a known allergic reaction to wasp and bee stings should carry a medic alert bracelet and an adrenaline injector, in case of a severe reaction as adrenaline must be administered without delay. If you have had a previous serious reaction or your doctor suspects you are at risk of one, then you should be given a pre-loaded adrenaline injection to carry. You must ensure that you always have the adrenaline kit with you and make sure you are comfortable using the one that has been prescribed to you. Adrenaline acts quickly to improve the quality of breathing, regulate the heartbeat and reduce the swelling in the face. Adrenaline treatments available may include the following:

  • Medihaler-Epi – if the symptoms include swelling of the mouth a treatment called a Medihaler-Epi should be used. A Medihaler-Epi is an aerosol containing adrenaline, the requirement is usually 4 puffs sprayed into the mouth. This type of treatment is not suitable for widespread allergic reactions.
  • Epipens – this device has a spring-activated needle and is designed to deliver a single 0.3mg dose of adrenaline into your muscle when the pen is pushed into your skin.
  • Min-i-jets – the Min-i-jet works in the same way as the Epipen but consists of a 1ml disposable syringe and needle. The dose will need to be measured accurately, as a full syringe will deliver 1mg of adrenaline.

The majority of people prefer the use of the Epipen due to the ease and the simplicity. There is no visible needle and the device has a shelf-life of 2 years compared to 9 months for the Mini-i-jet. In some cases a single dose of the Epipen may not prove enough to treat severe reactions, you should always carry two Epipens as a safety measure.

To avoid insect bites:

  • Don’t move suddenly when wasps and bees are around.
  • Cover up while outside.
  • Avoid wearing brightly coloured clothing or flowery prints.
  • Wear shoes and socks outdoors.
  • Minimise wearing perfume and strongly scented cosmetics.
  • Take care when out on picnics and outdoor gatherings.
  • Use insect repellent for extra protection.

You should call a doctor if :

  • If the area around the insect bite or sting is very red and inflamed.
  • If you have a sting that you can’t remove.
  • If you develop a fever due to the result of an insect bite.
  • You know you have an allergy to bites or stings.
  • Other parts of your body develop a rash after the bite.

You should seek urgent medical attention if :

  • If you are stung in the mouth or throat.
  • If you have severe symptoms.

Pet allergies

Allergy to pets may take years to develop and the symptoms may persist for some time even after the contact with the pet has ceased. Pet allergies may also be known as perennial allergic rhinitis as the allergic reaction can occur throughout the year, whereas seasonal allergic rhinitis (hay fever) only occurs at certain times of the year.

What is the cause of pet allergies?

One of the main pet allergen culprits is pet or animal dander – minute particles of fur and skin that animals shed all the time. The dander particles are extremely small and therefore mainly airborne, so are easily breathed in. A cat can shed 0.2 grams of dander every day and this may be found on ceilings and walls for many months after the animal has left the house. If you are moving house and have an allergy to certain animals it would be advisable to find out if the owners have a pet. Once we’ve stroked, cuddled or even been near to animals we obligingly carry the dander even further afield where it can be a risk in public places. Dander has been found in cinemas, on buses and in offices.

Animal allergens are not just found in fur and skin, some animals produce their allergens in urine or saliva which can also trigger acute allergic reactions.

An allergic reaction can occur when an animal or object containing pet allergens is touched, or when the allergen particles are breathed in.

What are the symptoms of pet allergies?

The symptoms of pet allergies are very similar to those experienced by hay fever sufferers and can include:

  • Sneezing, runny or blocked nose.
  • Headaches.
  • Watery, itchy, red eyes.
  • Loss of smell or taste.
  • Coughing and wheezing (asthma).
  • Blocked sinuses.

You may also find you develop atopic eczema. The main symptom of atopic eczema is the unbearable itchiness. Other symptoms include, dryness of the skin, redness and inflammation.

How are pet allergies diagnosed?

Your doctor may be able to diagnose your allergy from your symptoms and when and where your symptoms develop. Skin tests and blood tests can confirm the diagnosis. For more information on these tests read the section “How are allergies diagnosed?” on the allergies page.

How can I avoid an allergic reaction to animals?

If you are allergic to an animal then the best solution is not keeping one in the house. If this is too traumatic you could try the following:

  • Keep them outside as much as possible or limit their entry to just one room and never allow them in the bedroom.
  • Don’t let pets into bedrooms, as dander can remain airborne for long periods.
  • Wash your pets regularly, every 2 weeks if possible in plain water. Remember to dry them properly afterwards.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly after touching a pet or animal.
  • Vacuum the pet’s living area regularly to reduce the amount of hair.
  • Clean the house regularly and have as little furniture as possible.

If you allergic to cats and are visiting the house of a cat owner, ask themnot to dust, sweep or vacuum on the day you arrive.

How are pet allergies treated?

The best treatment is to identify the allergen causing the allergic reaction, then avoid that allergen as much as possible.

Treatment is available to minimise the symptoms, these include antihistamine tablets or syrup, which lessens the allergic reaction and relieves the hay fever like symptoms. There are also nasal sprays and eye drops available for reducing nasal inflammation and irritated eyes.

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