Warm weather brings many of us outdoors, including bees, wasps, yellow jackets and other flying insects. They play an important role in our ecosystem, but it’s hard to appreciate that when you get stung.
An insect sting from a bee or another Hymenoptera species (one of the largest orders of insects that includes bees, wasps, hornets, sawflies and ants) isn’t dangerous for most people. But for a small minority, an insect sting can lead to anaphylaxis, a serious allergic reaction.
The thought of being stung by a bee or other stinging insect can be frightening, especially if you know you’re at risk for anaphylaxis.
Read on to understand more about reactions to an insect sting and how to avoid getting stung.
What are the allergy symptoms of a sting?
Stings from bees and other stinging insects often present a range of symptoms, some more serious than others. In addition, it isn’t uncommon to react differently each time you are stung. So just because you didn’t have a severe reaction to a sting in the past doesn’t mean you won’t have one in the future.
“It is possible to react to the very first insect sting, but it is more likely after previous stings have ‘sensitized’ you,” said William Culver, MD, an adult and pediatric allergist and immunologist with Banner Health.
A mild, local reaction to insect stings includes pain, swelling, and redness at the site where the stinger entered the skin.
“Normally, there is a red bump that might be small or even the size of a nickel or quarter with stinging and burning in the area,” Dr. Culver said.
A moderate allergic reaction may cause symptoms such as hives and extreme redness. Swelling at the site of the sting may also gradually increase for a day or two.
While you might not need to see your provider or an allergist to treat your moderate reaction, a follow-up appointment is a good idea. Your provider may be able to determine how allergic you are to bees and other stinging insects and what preventive steps you can take.
A severe systemic allergic reaction occurs when your body’s immune system causes a toxic reaction called anaphylaxis (anaphylactic shock). A toxic reaction occurs when the insect venom acts like a poison in the body.
Call 911 immediately and get emergency treatment if you notice the following signs of anaphylactic shock:
- Itching or swelling of lips, tongue and back of the throat
- Hoarseness, difficulty breathing in or out, chest tightness, coughing, wheezing
- Itching and swelling away from the site of the sting
- Severe stomach pain
- Clammy skin
- Feeling faint, dizzy or very sleepy
How do I treat a bee sting (and other stinging insect stings)?
However painful, a small allergic reaction at the site of the sting will usually respond to Benadryl and other antihistamines and the use of a cold compress. You can remove the stinger by scraping a credit card carefully over the skin at the site of the sting.
For anaphylaxis, call 911 and begin treatment immediately. Use an epinephrine auto-injector (EpiPen) if you have one. EpiPens are available for people with known anaphylactic reactions.
[Also read “How to Recognize and Treat Allergic Reactions.”]
Can a test let me know if I’m allergic to an insect sting?
There are two types of tests to measure specific allergic antibodies:
- A simple blood test can point out if an allergic antibody exists.
- A scratch test is more sensitive and can also alert your provider to the presence of an allergic antibody.
However, neither of these tests is extremely reliable.
“As many as 40% of people will have a false positive reaction to the blood and skin tests without having a serious reaction to an insect sting,” Dr. Culver said. “Testing is useful only in a serious allergic reaction setting.”
If I’m allergic to bee stings, am I allergic to other insect stings?
Those who have an allergic reaction to bee stings commonly wonder if they could also be allergic to other flying insects. Although many stinging insects belong to Hymenoptera, their venoms are very different. Allergy to one type does not usually increase your risk of an allergic reaction to another.
How can I avoid being stung if I have an allergy to bee stings?
- Avoid walking around in bare feet or sandals when outdoors.
- Food attracts insects. When outside, avoid garbage cans and waste areas that draw insects.
- When outdoors, drink out of water bottles or other close-lid containers to prevent insects from entering.
- If there are bees around you or on you, don’t run. Standing still will keep the bees calm, and, most likely, they will fly away without causing harm.
- Avoid brightly colored clothing and fragrances/perfumes.
- If you find a bee or wasp nest, do not attempt to move it yourself. Instead, call an insect expert for advice.
- Purchase the Bug Bite Thing. This suction tool is available over the counter and can help alleviate itching, stinging and swelling from bug bites and stings.
- If you have a known allergy, carry an EpiPen with you.
Bee stings and other insect stings are one of the unfortunate side effects of warm weather. For most people, they are a minor nuisance but can be potentially fatal for others.
If you are worried that you may be allergic to the stings of bees, wasps or other insects, talk to your health care provider. They can offer advice and, if appropriate, refer you to a specialist for further evaluation.