Each year, 50 to 100 people die from bee and wasp stings. Most die from an allergic reaction to venom within one hour of the sting. About 1 percent of the population is allergic to bee and wasp venom. Wasps and honey bees can be mistaken for one another because both insects are capable of giving painful stings. While honey bees can attack when provoked, wasps are naturally and more aggressive predators. Wasps and bees are beneficial insects. Bees are particularly valuable because of their role in plant pollination, including many agricultural crops. Wasps also pollinate to a much lesser extent and are important because they feed on a wide range of insects, including many common garden pests. Both wasps and bees have the potential to sting although they will generally not bother people if they are left alone
When bees or wasps sting a person, they inject venom through their stinger into the skin of the victim. Wasps, yellow jackets, and hornets have stingers without barbs that are usually retracted upon stinging, and these insects can sting people multiple times. The honey bee has a barbed stinger that remains in the victim’s skin with its venom sack attached. About 3% of people stung by bees and wasps have an allergic reaction to the sting, and up to 0.8% of bee sting victims experience the severe and life-threatening allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis. For ordinary bee stings that do not cause an allergic reaction, home treatment is enough. Multiple stings or an allergic reaction can be a medical emergency that requires immediate treatment.
Most people will have only a localized reaction to a bee sting. In the normal reaction to a bee sting, the skin is reddened and painful. Swelling and/or itching may also occur, but the pain usually disappears over a few hours. In the so-called large local reaction to an insect sting, the swelling, redness, and pain may persist for up to a week. Areas adjacent to the site of the skin may also be involved in the large local reaction.
Here are some home treatments bee or wasp stings.
- Remove any stingers immediately. Some experts recommend scraping out the stinger with a credit card.
- Applying ice to the site may provide some mild relief. Apply ice for 20 minutes once every hour as needed. Wrap the ice in a towel or keep a cloth between the ice and skin to keep from freezing the skin.
- Taking an antihistamine such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) or a nonsedating one such as loratadine (Claritin) will help with itching.
- Take ibuprofen (Motrin) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) for pain relief as needed.
- Wash the sting site with soap and water and place an antibiotic ointment on the site.
- If it’s been more than 10 years since your last tetanus booster, get a booster within the next few days.
- Apply hydrocortisone cream or calamine lotion to ease redness, itching or swelling.
- Avoid scratching the sting area. This will worsen itching and swelling and increase your risk of infection.
In anaphylactic reactions, victims experience wheezing, difficulty breathing, and a drop in blood pressure that leads to shock if not treated promptly. Around 50 people are killed each year in the U.S. due to severe anaphylactic reactions to bee stings. These type of reactions usually occur within minutes of the bee sting. Since most people who have allergies to bee stings will have a worsened reaction to every subsequent sting, those individuals with bee sting allergies should talk to their doctor about taking special precautions. If you know you may be allergic, especially if you’ve had a severe reaction in the past when stung by a bee or wasp, seek immediate medical help. Take an antihistamine such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) or a nonsedating one such as loratadine (Claritin) as soon as possible. If you have been prescribed epinephrine (EpiPen) for an allergic reaction, always carry two with you and use it as directed.
When to see a doctor.
Call 911 or other emergency services if:
- You’re having a serious reaction to a bee sting that suggests anaphylaxis, even if it’s just one or two signs or symptoms
- If you were prescribed an emergency epinephrine autoinjector (EpiPen, Twinject), use it right away as your doctor directed.
Seek prompt medical care if:
- You’ve been swarmed by bees and have multiple stings
Make an appointment to see your doctor if:
- Bee sting symptoms don’t go away within a few days
- You’ve had other symptoms of an allergic response to a bee sting
Patty Hildreth, ARNP