The two greatest risks from most insect stings are allergic reaction (which occasionally could be fatal in some individuals) and infection (more common and less serious).
Bees, wasps, yellow jackets, and hornets belong to a class of insects called Hymenoptera. Most insect stings cause only minor discomfort. Stings can occur anywhere on the body and can be painful and frightening. Yellow jackets cause the most allergic reactions in the US. Stings from these insects cause three to four times more deaths than poisonous snake bites, due to severe allergic reaction. Fire ants, usually found in southern states, can sting multiple times, and the sites are more likely to become infected.
The following are the most common symptoms of insect stings. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:
- local skin reactions at the site or surrounding the sting, including the following:
- small amounts of bleeding or drainage
- generalized symptoms that indicate a more serious and possibly life-threatening allergic reaction, including the following:
- tickling in the throat
- tightness in the throat or chest
- breathing problems or wheezing
- nausea or vomiting
- dizziness or fainting
- itching and rash elsewhere on the body, remote from the site of the sting
Specific treatment for stings will be determined by your physician. Large, local reactions usually do not lead to generalized reactions. However, they can be life threatening if the sting occurs in the mouth, nose, or throat area. This is due to swelling that can close off the airway.
Treatment for local skin reactions may include the following:
- Calm the individual and let him/her know that you can help.
- Remove the stinger by gently scraping across the site with a blunt-edged object, such as a credit card or dull knife. Do not try to pull it out, as this may release more venom.
- Wash the area well with soap and water.
- Apply a cold or ice pack wrapped in a cloth to help reduce swelling and pain (10 minutes on and 10 minutes off for 30 to 60 minutes).
- If the sting occurs on an arm or leg, elevate the limb to help reduce swelling.
- To help reduce the itching, consider the following:
- Apply a paste of baking soda and water and leave it on for 15 to 20 minutes.
- Apply a paste of non-seasoned meat tenderizer and water and leave it on for 15 to 20 minutes.
- Apply a wet tea bag and leave it on for 15 to 20 minutes.
- Use an over-the-counter product made to use on insect stings.
- Apply an antihistamine or corticosteroid cream or calamine lotion.
- Give acetaminophen for pain.
- Give an over-the-counter antihistamine, if approved by your physician.
- Observe the individual closely for the next hour for any signs of allergic reaction that would warrant emergency medical treatment.
Call 911 or your local emergency medical service (EMS) and seek emergency care immediately if the individual is stung in the mouth, nose, or throat area, or for any signs of a systemic or generalized reaction.
Emergency medical treatment may include the following:
- intravenous (IV) antihistamines
- corticosteroids or other medications
- lab tests
- breathing support
Some general guidelines to help reduce the possibility of insect stings while outdoors include the following:
- Avoid perfumes, hairsprays, and other scented products.
- Avoid brightly colored clothing.
- Do not go outside barefoot.
- Spray clothing with the appropriate repellent.
- Avoid locations where hives and nests are present. Have the nests removed by professionals.
- Teach your child that if an insect comes near to stay calm and walk away slowly.
Some additional preventive measures for persons who have a known or suspected allergy to stings include the following:
- Carry a bee sting kit (such as Epi-Pen®) at all times and know how to use it. These products are available by prescription.
- Make sure your child wears long-sleeve shirts and long pants when playing outdoors.
- See an allergist for allergy testing and treatment.
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