Although an insect sting is usually more of a nuisance than a serious health threat, it's a good idea to know your enemy. Here's a quick rundown of the most common culprits.
Bees and Wasps
The good news: These insects do not tend to sting unless disturbed. Bright hues and strong odors attract them, so opt for light-colored clothes and avoid perfume, blooming plants, bananas, and scented toiletries.
Scrape, Don't Squeeze
If you have been stung, pull or scrape away the stinger rather than squeezing it out, which can release more venom. Wash the area with soap and water, and ice it to minimize swelling. Anti-inflammatories and antihistamines can help with itchiness and swelling. If you experience hives, difficulty breathing, dizziness, tongue and throat swelling, or a weak and rapid heartbeat -- all signs of anaphylaxis, a dangerous allergic reaction -- seek immediate medical care.
People who have a severe allergy to insect bites -- an allergist can test for this -- should carry an epinephrine injector, such as EpiPen.
These pests prefer to breed in standing water, so frequently replacing or dumping the water that collects in birdbaths, swimming-pool covers, and backyard buckets can interrupt their reproductive cycle. If possible, remain indoors at dawn and dusk, when mosquitoes are out in force.
A mosquito "bites" by poking its needlelike mouth into the skin to draw blood; the saliva deposited leaves the area intensely itchy. Hydrocortisone cream and calamine lotion can reduce discomfort.
Ticks live in woods, shrubs, and grassy fields, so during outdoor activities, cover your arms and legs, and tuck pants into socks. Be sure to check thoroughly for ticks afterward.
Save the Evidence
If you find a tick, carefully remove it with tweezers and clean the bite wound with soap and water. Save the perpetrator in a jar: In the event of illness, it will help doctors make a diagnosis. Tick bites can lead to a number of serious ailments, including Lyme disease.
Prevalent across much of the South, fire ants cause a painful burning sensation (hence their name) and produce pus-filled blisters that occasionally leave scars. Over-the-counter pain relievers and anti-inflammatories can help alleviate soreness and swelling. In rare cases, usually in attacks involving multiple ants, people experience anaphylaxis and require immediate medical attention.
Watch Your Step
Fire ants often sting when people disturb their mounds. Tread carefully and think twice about wearing sandals. Visit cdc.gov for a map of fire-ant zones.
In insect repellents, the higher the concentration of an active ingredient -- DEET is the most ubiquitous -- the longer it remains effective. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a product containing 20 percent DEET is likely to provide protection for almost four hours, while products with levels in the 5-percent range provide only one and a half hours of protection.
DEET is endorsed by the Environmental Protection Agency and the CDC, but among consumers concerns about its toxicity linger. In recent years, a host of DEET-free alternatives have emerged, many using naturally occurring substances called bio-pesticides. Two common ones: Oil of lemon eucalyptus, a plant extract shown to drive away mosquitoes and ticks, and oil of citronella, which is made from dried grasses and masks the human odors that attract insects. Citronella-based products come in many forms, including candles, lotions, sprays, and towelette wipes. The efficacy of these products varies depending on the amount of oil they contain.
Text by David Tuller
© 2013 Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. All rights reserved.