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Sandflies, Gnats and the B That Bit Me - Flies that Bite and Cause an Allergic Reaction

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Something bit me in the garden the other day, while I was innocently planting seeds and minding my own business.

It was small and dark, just about the same size as the tiny seeds I was planting actually. I thought it was a stray seed that had somehow worked its way on to the back of my hand.

I automatically flicked it away, and noticed three things at the same time. It was soft and squelchy, unlike the hard seeds I’d been working with, it hurt – there was a stabbing pain – and thirdly blood immediately oozed out of the tiny wound – thick dark globules of it.

Now tell me the truth, you thought I was saying a bad word in the title of this hub. I was referring to Biting Midges, of course.

swelling of hand following an insect bite

swelling of hand following an insect bite

My hand immediately started to swell around the area of the bite as shown on the right here.

What was it?

We can safely say it wasn’t a mosquito. When mosquitoes bite, their proboscis, (the needle like part of them that they inject under the skin to seek blood) is smooth sided and really doesn’t hurt at all at the time. You only know you’ve been bitten by a mosquito when you start to itch, which of course is moments later, after it has flown away. Also mosquitoes do not tend to leave evidence of their visit, like freely flowing blood.

The itch caused by this bite was horrendous - much much worse than the itch of a mosquito bite.

Thanks to my good friends on the forums here on Hubpages, we have narrowed it down to probably a member the diptera family which includes sand flies (endemic here) , gnats and biting midges.


Like mosquitoes, it is only the females of the sandflies that bite. They need a protein that is only available in blood in order to produce eggs. Unlike the mosquito however, the proboscis is serrated, causing pain.

Sandflies inject a mixture of anti-coagulant and anaesthetic into the blood stream of their victim.

Some people, myself included, are allergic to this chemical mix.

This creature, or members of its family, have bitten me before. The bites always happen in the day time, and they always happen in my garden, where I have an abundance of grass and vegetative material growing.

I am still unable to fully distinguish this insect. It seems that the name sandfly is used to mean a lot of different types of biting insect. Sand-fleas, the biting midge and black flies are also called sandflies at times. And all gnats are dipteras.

I live in an area that has sandy soil, and is hot but not especially humid, and is a good 20kms from the sea.

'Bleeding' the insect bite

A Local Remedy I heard of later

Apparently, it is not uncommon to 'bleed' the wound to get rid of the insect's toxins.

This would involve taking a sharp knife and cutting open the bite wound, preferably right away, and allowing the wound to bleed.

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Hopefully this would push the toxins out of the body instead of into the blood stream where it then gets the chance to do a lot more damage.

Photos of skin reaction to insect bites

back of hand up like a glove. The bite mark is barely visible.

back of hand up like a glove. The bite mark is barely visible.

palm of hand grossly swollen

palm of hand grossly swollen

both hands for comparison - note how the bite would on the left back of hand/wrist has opened up.

both hands for comparison - note how the bite would on the left back of hand/wrist has opened up.

Skin reactions to insect bites

Each time I get a bite I get the same reaction.

  • The skin around the wound swells , reddens and is extremely itchy.
  • It frequently swells well beyond the boundary of the bite, taking in at least another 12” of skin, with red streaky lines appearing well away from the site of the bite.
  • Usually I feel ill for a few days afterwards, and the swelling gradually goes down over the course of a week, although the bite area itself has been known to stay itchy for up to six months.

You would think that anyone who suffers this on a fairly regular basis would remember to always use some form of insect repellent at all time while in the garden, and I do mostly. Maybe once a year I forget and this happens.


For the first time I had to seek medical attention because my fingers were turning blue, quite apart from the pain I was suffering. Every time I noticed the fingers turning blue, I tried to wiggle them a little bit (they had no more free movement than that anyway) to increase blood circulation.

The bite happened on the Saturday. I resisted going for medical help on the Sunday partly because I was sure that before the end of the day the swelling would have started to subside, partly because I couldn't move my hand and therefore couldn't get dressed, and partly because I believe emergency treatment should be for emergencies only.

Insect stings/bites have been known to cause anaphylactic shocks in some people, none of the symptoms of which I had.

For the record, always seek immediate medical assistance if:

  • your body breaks out in hives
  • you have trouble breathing
  • you were bitten on the face or mouth and the swelling interferes with your airway passage (tongue included).
  • you faint or feel light-headed
  • you have difficulty swallowing
  • you have swelling that is increasing after 24 hours

On the Monday, I went along to the local GP surgery, where I was given an IM injection of steroids in my bum, (that didn't hurt at the time, but man, it did later!) and a prescription for anti-histamine tablets, a steroid cream and an antibiotic, and have been told in no uncertain terms that if I get stung again, I have to treat it as a medical emergency and seek treatment right away, as I have an allergy to the toxins injected.


Read here, it's common name here in Spain is MOSCA NEGRA, and it is from the family Simulium.

Healing Time

7 days later I was still feeling ill.The swelling had gone down but the hand still itched a bit despite the treatment. I suffered intermittent headaches all week, and just didn't feel right.

Sand flies are an especial danger here in Spain because they spread leishmaniasis. This disease affects dogs badly, but human can also develop a form of it, known as cutaneous leishmaniasis. This is characterised by skin lesions that can develop weeks or months after the infective bite, leaving disfiguring scars.

The moral of the story is:

Always wear a bug repellent spray while in the garden.


IzzyM (author) from UK on May 09, 2012:

Usually the midges are nothing more than a nuisance to me, but I confess I am dreading this summer. At least I know they only bite at dusk so to stay indoors then.

Sorry to hear about your face - that must have been awful!!

moonlake from America on May 09, 2012:

We have sandflies, they get under my hair and bite, the spot swells. Later this junk drains out of the bite. They go up our pant legs and bite through clothes, terrible little creatures. So far the best thing I put on to keep them away is Skin So Soft. I hate putting on insect repellent.

You got an instant facelift on your hand.

I'm allergic to deer flies. One time one bite me in the forehead. My face looked like your hand.

By the way your hand looks terrible. It's good that you went for medical help looks like you needed it.

Voted Up.

Anne from United Kingdom on May 09, 2012:

Poor you, no wonder you are scared to go in your garden.I know the Scottish midges are renound for their numbers and biting skills.

I still do react when I´m bitten but usually not as badly as I used to. Mind, having said that I did look like I´d been in the ring with Joe Bugner when I got bit at the corner of my eye last year.

IzzyM (author) from UK on May 09, 2012:

The trouble with the insects here in Scotland is that they bite you through your clothes, so unless you want to literally be covered head to toe in insecticide, you just have to live with it. At least the Spanish flies only bite exposed skin.

It sounds like you had a similar reaction to sandflies as me, but good to hear it wore off after a time, at least for you. I lived there for 9 years and the allergy has stayed.

Anne from United Kingdom on May 09, 2012:

Hi Izzy. I am in Valencia, so a neighbour more or less.

Sandfly bites can go on itching for years, usually when you get hot. I have lived here now for 10 years and do still react to bite´s, but nowhere near as bad as when we first moved out here. In those days a bite would put me in bed 24 hours after I got it,feeling like I had started with flu. The pain and swelling would be awful. Dont let midgies put you off gardening in the UK..just follow your own advice and slap on the protection.

IzzyM (author) from UK on May 09, 2012:

Tell me about it! And they bite for no reason whatsoever - vicious little brutes! Whereabouts in Spain are you? I recently moved back to the UK but still have my home in Spain which will be great for holidays! Unfortunately, the sensitivity to insect bites I developed in Spain seems to have stuck with me, and now I seem to get itchy every time I work in the garden here, even though it is out of season just now. Dreading the summer when the midgies come out!

Anne from United Kingdom on May 09, 2012:

Hi IzzyM. Great article. I also live in Spain and have been bitten loads of times too. Sandflys are such aggressive little B´s.

IzzyM (author) from UK on March 03, 2012:

Thanks, but I'm still nervous about tending my own garden in summer. These biting insects are tiny and I have to remember to cover all naked skin with insecticide before I go to do anything - even pulling a stray weed. Allergic reactions are horrible!

Gail Sobotkin from South Carolina on March 02, 2012:

Thanks for sharing this important lesson that you learned the hard way.

Voted up and useful.

IzzyM (author) from UK on May 07, 2010:

2uesday, I'm like you - I love gardening, but I'm really scared now! Like I said, I've had bad bites before but this was the worst ever. AND it was expensive because the medication cost well over €20!

2uesday on May 07, 2010:

Izzy that photo brings home how painful this must have been when your hand swelled to that size. I hope this does not happen to you ever again. I thought gardening was a peaceful pass time until I read this.

Audrevea on May 02, 2010:

Oh my gosh - that's horrible. I really love these hubs which share real experiences.

IzzyM (author) from UK on May 01, 2010:

Cheers Tony - guess it's an allergic reaction! I'm scared to go out in the garden now...

Tony McGregor from South Africa on May 01, 2010:

Wow! What a painful experience! I have been stung by bees and mosquitoes many times but nothing like that has ever happened to me, I'm happy to say. I hope your hand gets back to its usual shape soon!

Love and peace


IzzyM (author) from UK on May 01, 2010:

Thanks JayJay - it was really bad this time. I'd no lines on my hands at all - not even on the palm! And at my age I have plenty of lines!

It's still a bit itchy but the swelling has gone, thanks God!

jayjay40 from Bristol England on May 01, 2010:

I cannot believe how swollen your hand is, you must have been in agony! That little beast must pack a punch. Glad to hear you are better. all the best

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