Battle of the Bug Bites

Bug bite over the counter remedies may offer little relief

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) As you're enjoying Memorial Day meals this weekend, don't be surprised to see six-legged friends scavenging for meals. Hopefully, they'll go after your food crumbs and not your blood.

A recent study reveals that many of the over-the-counter remedies promoted to treat bug bites don't actually do much at all, or at least there is not yet enough evidence out there to say otherwise.

"Use insect repellent to avoid bug bites in the first place."

The evidence was reviewed by an independent panel of experts gathered for the journal Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin. The experts specialize in fields relevant to reviewing this sort of evidence and compiled a joint statement on what they found.

As most people know, bug bites run the gamut in the ways they can affect people. While the bites of most common bugs, such as mosquitoes, fire ants and fleas, cause a mild inflammation that's mostly itchy and annoying, other bites can cause more damaging effects.

Bee and wasp stings can cause significant swelling and pain, and various other bug bites - or bites that a person is allergic to - can cause infections, stimulate a person's eczema to flare up or even cause anaphylactic shock in rare but serious cases.

The panel focused primarily on the milder bites and the various creams and tablets offered over the counter to treat the itching, pain, and swelling from these bites, as well as the problems caused by scratching the tissues.

One remedy is antihistamine tablets to stop the itching, but the panel found that little evidence exists to support the effectiveness of these kinds of tablets.

Similarly, the panel did not find evidence that steroid creams and tablets could help the itching and inflammation for bug bites, though evidence did show these creams can help people with diagnosed eczema.

The panel cautioned that steroid creams can potentially cause problems if used on broken and infected skin, such as skin that has been scratched repeatedly.

Some evidence found that creams with painkillers, such as lidocaine or benzocaine, or creams that combined anesthetics with antihistamines and antiseptics, were "marginally effective" but could cause more sensitive skin.

The panel found some evidence to support using a diluted ammonium solution to relieve itching or burning. They did not find similar evidence for using antiseptics (cleansers) or astringents for the same purpose.

Ultimately, the panel concluded that the best option for mild bites is simply to suck it up and wait it out.

"There is little evidence for the efficacy of treatments for simple insect bites," the panel concluded. The symptoms are often self limiting and in many cases, no treatment may be needed."

The research review appeared in the April issue of the journal Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin, a publication of the BMJ Group. No funding was required and information regarding possible conflicts of interest among the panel members was unavailable.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
May 25, 2012
Last Updated:
August 16, 2012