Summertime update on bites and stings
Summer brings balmy outdoor days but also possible dangers from bites and stings by insects and other creatures. With the wasp season upon us, everyone should know what to do if bitten by wasps, bees, hornets or other buzzing creatures. Despite their small size, insects can ruin a summer weekend and cause severe, possibly life-threatening, allergic reactions that may come on within minutes or (rarely) seconds, requiring emergency medical attention. Symptoms include: widespread hives (rash), chest tightness, swelling of tongue and/or throat, nausea, wheezing and faintness.
Insect venoms can cause an immediate or a delayed reaction. The faster the response the more serious it likely is. Biting insects — such as blackflies, horseflies, bedbugs, lice, fleas and mosquitoes — attack humans mainly in search of blood, and the saliva released to soften human skin can cause a serious reaction. Stinging insects — such as bees, hornets, wasps and yellow jackets — attack either in self-defence or to subdue prey. Their stingers inject a remarkably toxic venom, in some instances powerful enough to paralyse prey by a neuromuscular block.
The general management of insect stings or bites is to flick off the offending insect gently then scrape off the skin cleanly with a sharp blade or credit card. Do not rub the skin. Never squeeze stingers out as it only injects more venom. Wash site with soap and water and apply ice; perhaps also try calamine lotion or a paste of water and baking soda (unless sting is near the eyes). If nothing else is available, cover sting with a cold compress. If the sting is in the mouth, rinse well with mouthwash made up of 1 tsp (5 ml) of bicarbonate of soda in a tumbler of cold water. Walk, don’t run (overheating increases toxin absorption). Try a dip in a nearby lake or cold water to minimize reaction by constricting blood vessels and possibly stimulating adrenaline release by the cold water shock. Try antihistamines to reduce itchiness. Apply a steriod or combined steriod-antibiotic cream to reduce inflammation and prevent infection; to enhance absorption, rub in the cream and cover with plastic wrap secured by cellulose tape.
For any signs of systemic (whole body) involvement and a severe allergic reaction (with hives, pallor, weakness, nausea, vomiting, breathing problems) seek emergency medical aid.
Animal bites, for instance by a bat, skunk, raccoon, fox, cat or dog, always carry some danger of infection, especially if the bite is deep, and possible risk of rabies.
* Allow some bleeding, to help cleanse the wound.
* Wash wound site with soap and water for several minutes to remove the animal’s saliva and rinse well with running water.
* If wound is on arm or leg, apply a firm bandage.
* Get medical attention even for a small animal bite to see if further care is warranted and whether there is a need for tetanus and/or rabies vaccination.
Snake bites can be a danger in Northern Canada. They are puncture wounds with swelling and local skin discolouration. Although the vast majority of snakes are not poisonous, some bites can cause violent reactions with pain, nausea, vomiting, weakness, vision blurring, sweating, difficulty breathing, speech slurring, paralysis and convulsions.
* Stay calm and reassure the casualty; persuade him or her to lie down and move the affected part as little as possible.
* Do not attempt to suck out venom, nor apply ice. If the bite is on a limb, splint to immobilize, and take the casualty to the nearest medical centre, moving the bitten part as little as possible. Be prepared to do artificial respiration or CPR (if qualified) if necessary.
* If the snake is known or thought to to be poisonous, seek immediate medical attention and call the local poison control centre.
Stings from marine creatures, especially those in warm or exotic places, often need emergency medical assistance, as they can be severe, even fatal. Marine stingers include jellyfish, sea anemones, Portuguese men-of-war and some corals. On contact with the skin, they discharge a small barb and toxin. Some sea urchins, which live on the sea bottom but may show up in shallow water, have poisonous spines that can puncture the skin even through thongs or sneakers. General measures for marine creature stings:
* Get out of the water and try to identify the stinger.
* Don’t rub the affected area or rinse with fresh water — this can discharge more toxin. Seek medical aid.
* If there’s no immediate medical help, apply a paste of talcum, baking soda or flour mixed with sea water. When the paste is scraped off, the marine creature’s cells and toxins might come out with it.
* For jellyfish or sea-anemone stings, which can produce a severe reaction (possibly with long red weals): — pull off the tentacles, protecting hands with cloth or gloves to keep the stingers off the skin; — wash with sea water, then apply rubbing alcohol or vinegar.
* For sea-urchin barbs: — scrub with soap and water (to get rid of some barbs); extract spines with sterilized needle or tweezers; — apply hot compresses or immerse in warm sea water to increase blood flow, which helps remove toxins.
* For injury from coral (which on contact can release toxins, or fragments that become embedded in skin), seek immediate medical attention as it’s a potentially life-threatening situation. Meanwhile, remove coral fragments with anything at hand — a handkerchief, tweezers or a needle and wash with soap and water; — splint to immobilize limb.
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