Advise Me

6 Questions About Bee Stings

Spring and summer often means flowers are blooming and insects are buzzing. And with those pesky insects, you probably will see a few bees. These helpful bugs may pollinate our gardens, but they also can be a pain when they sting.

And, for some, a sting can be much worse than a pain. For some, it can be a serious medical emergency as a severe allergic reaction sets in. Banner Medical Group Allergist William Culver, MD, helped shed light on this type of systemic allergic reaction, known as anaphylaxis.

“It is possible to occur on the very first insect sting, but more likely after previous stings have ‘sensitized’ the individual," Dr. Culver said.

Dr. Culver then went on to explain the different types of bee sting reactions and helped ease my fears by educating me on all things related to bee stings.

Q: What is a typical reaction to a bee sting and what would be the reaction in someone who is allergic?

A: Most people develop pain, redness and swelling at the site of an insect sting, and this is a normal reaction.

A serious allergic reaction involves:

  • Swelling of the face, throat or tongue
  • Itchiness and hives over large areas of the body
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Dizziness
  • Sense of impending doom

A severe systemic allergic reaction that involves more than one system of the body is called anaphylaxis or anaphylactic shock.

In some cases, someone can develop serious symptoms that are not allergic. A toxic reaction occurs when the insect venom acts like a poison in the body. It can cause symptoms similar to those of an allergic reaction. This includes nausea, fever, swelling at the site of the sting, fainting, seizures, shock and even death. A toxic reaction can happen after only one sting, but it usually takes many stings from insects.

Q: How common is it to have an allergic reaction when someone has been stung in the past without a serious reaction?

A: Fortunately, a systemic reaction in people who have experienced only a local reaction to a bee sting in the past is no more than 5-10 percent. Of those who have had a previous serious reaction 30-60 percent of those could have a systemic reaction when re-stung.

Q: What types of treatments do you recommend for someone a bee has stung bee?

A: People can use an antihistamine, topical steroid or ice for a local reaction of redness, swelling and pain. Severe systemic reactions should be treated with epinephrine and may require an emergency room evaluation or a call to 911. For persons experiencing severe life-threatening reactions, allergy injection therapy to the specific venom of the stinging insect greatly reduces the risk of subsequent systemic reactions.

Skin testing by an experienced allergist can help determine the presence of allergic antibody to insect venom and help guide further medical care and treatment.

Q: If one of your parents is allergic, is that a sign you will be as well?

A: Family history of an individual with a severe reaction to a bee sting, or any other insect, does not contribute to other family members’ sensitivity.

Q: Or how about if you’re allergic to a certain food? Could that be an indication that you could be allergic to bees?

A: Food allergy or environmental allergies are not risk factors for systemic reactions to an insect sting.

Q: What can people do to reduce their likelihood of a bee stinging them since they will likely come in contact with bees or other stinging insects?

  • To reduce the number of insects, you should destroy hives and nests around your home. However, insects are most likely to sting if their homes are disturbed. Because this activity may be dangerous, consider hiring a trained exterminator.
  • If you spot stinging insects, remain calm and quiet and slowly move away.
  • Avoid brightly colored clothing and perfume when outdoors. Many stinging insects are searching for food and could confuse you with a flower.
  • Be careful outdoors when cooking, eating or drinking sweet beverages like soda or juice, which seem to draw insects . Cover food and drinks to keep insects out.
  • Wear closed-toe shoes outdoors and avoid going barefoot to avoid stepping on a stinging insect.
  • Avoid loose-fitting garments that can trap insects between material and skin.
Allergy and Immunology Safety