Bites and stings

How to manage unexpected wildlife interactions

Don't let the same dog bite you twice. Chuck Berry

The terms ‘bite’ and ‘sting’ refer to when an animal or plant breaks the skin surface, potentially transferring germs or venom that can result in anything from a minor irritation to a severe medical condition.

We generally use the word ‘bite’ when it occurs with teeth (e.g. a dog bite), and sting when it occurs with another part of the body (e.g. a bee stings with a barbed stinger; a plant stings with tiny hairs on its leaves).

In the case of insect bites and stings, while both hurt, the difference in the two terms refers to whether any toxic venom is transferred. An insect bite occurs when the insect pierces the skin. Often the insect injects anticoagulant saliva so they can feed on your blood. By contrast, an insect sting is when the animal transfers toxic venom into your system, often as a defence mechanism.

While both can result in a pain, itchiness, or even an allergic reaction for some people, the causes are quite different. For an insect bite, our bodies are responding to the potential infection by the breakdown of the skin barrier and potential transfer of infectious agents from the insect (e.g. malaria transferred to humans via mosquito bites). For an insect sting, your body in addition to potential infection is dealing with a foreign toxic substance, that may have severe medical consequences. The same is true for spiders, although they are not if fact insects – a general misconception for many of us!

In the case of snakes, however, the term ‘bite’ can refer to both venomous and non-venomous attacks, however, for practical purposes all snakes bites are treated as venomous until proven otherwise.

And in the plant kingdom, ‘stinging’ plants have tiny needles that break off and lodge into the skin, causing extreme discomfort.

Having said all this, the chance of being bitten by a snake or spider on a bushwalk is relatively low. In Australia there are about 3,000 snake bites per year, of which 200 to 500 receive antivenom; on average one or two will prove fatal. By contrast, spider-related deaths are almost unheard of:although approximately 2000 people are bitten each year by Redback Spiders, there has only been 1 spider-related death since antivenoms for funnel web and redback spiders were developed in 1980s.

To put this in perspective, there were 1290 road crash deaths and fatal road crashes in Australia during only 2016 And in 2015, there were 45,392 deaths attributed to cardiovascular disease in Australia.

While fatal outcomes of bites and stings by Australian wildlife is unlikely, nevertheless, it’s worth having the knowledge and skill set to deal with unexpected situations in the bush because emergency medical help is often delayed.

Although the likelihood of getting bitten, stung or scratched by an animal on a bushwalk by an animal that will envenomate (or similar) is fairly low, there are some simple things that you can do to reduce that risk further. The information here is based on current guidelines from the NSW Health Direct website.

Some general advice for avoiding wildlife bites, scratches and stings, and good for mozzies too!

  • Wear long sleeved shirts and pants and closed-top shoes to cover up your skin and reduce the risk of bites.
  • Follow the Leave No Trace principles and leave wild animals be. Do not touch, corner or startle a wild animals, especially for the sake of a photo.
  • If you notice a wild animal, warn others in the group. If you can, wait for it to move off on it’s own accord or make a wide berth around the animal.
  • Insect repellant is great for preventing insect and leech bites.

DEET is an extremely effective way of avoiding insect bites including mosquito bites, and is particularly important in areas with known mosquito-borne diseases. The DEET (Diethytoluamide) chemical conceals us to insects by stopping the detection Carbon Dioxide, which we emit from our skin, a stimuli for blood feeding 1.

The Department of Medical Entomology at the University of Sydney & Westmead Hospital released the following guidelines for using repellants:

  • DEET repellants = recommended, but in different strengths depending on situation.
  • Plant-based repellents = good, but need to be reapplied regularly.
  • Wrist-band and patch repellents = ineffective.

Always check the label before applying insect repellent for instructions on how to apply and how often to reapply, and test it first on a small patch of skin before applying fully.

MORE INFORMATION
Health direct is a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information:
https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/bites-and-stings

Free app on to help identify and deal with bites and stings: http://www.seqirus.com.au/bites-app

Resources at the Australian Museum website (e.g. spider bites and venoms)

SPECIAL THANKS TO THE FOLLOWING EXPERTS FOR REVIEWING AND CONTRIBUTING MATERIAL TO THIS ARTICLE:

JOHN TURNBULL
Author of Marine Explorer and Ex-President of National Parks Association of NSW.

MARGOT LAW
Citizen Science Officer
National Parks Association of NSW

Ticks:
HENRY LYDECKER | PhD Candidate
School of Life and Environmental Sciences | Faculty of Science
The University of Sydney

Spiders:
FRAN VAN DEN BERG
Citizen Science Officer
National Parks Association of NSW

  1. Leslie, Mitch. “Hiding From Biting Insects in Plain Scent.” Science 319.5869 (2008): 1471-1471
  2. Leslie, Mitch. “Hiding From Biting Insects in Plain Scent.” Science 319.5869 (2008): 1471-1471
  3. Leslie, Mitch. “Hiding From Biting Insects in Plain Scent.” Science 319.5869 (2008): 1471-1471
  4. Leslie, Mitch. “Hiding From Biting Insects in Plain Scent.” Science 319.5869 (2008): 1471-1471
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