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Patient information: Bee and insect stings (Beyond the Basics)

OVERVIEW

Being stung by a bee, wasp, hornet, or yellow jacket can be both painful and scary. Some people have serious or even life-threatening reactions to stings, requiring quick treatment.

This article will review the most common types of stings, reactions to stings, and recommended treatments. More detailed information about stings is available by subscription. (See "Bee, yellow jacket, wasp, and other Hymenoptera stings: Reaction types and acute management".)

INSECT TYPES

The insects that cause the most serious sting reactions include the following:

INSECT STING REACTION

After being stung, you should remove the stinger from your skin as soon as possible to prevent any more venom from being released into the skin. However, all the venom is released from the stinger within the first few seconds, so this is only helpful if done quickly. You do not need to use any special technique (eg, flicking or scraping) to get the stinger out.

Most people who are stung by an insect will develop a local reaction (an area of swelling and redness). Some people will also develop a severe allergic reaction, called anaphylaxis.

Local reaction — Immediately after being stung, most people have:

  • Sharp or burning pain
  • Skin swelling and redness (picture 4)

The swelling and pain usually improve within a few hours.

Approximately 10 percent of people develop severe redness and swelling after a sting; this is called a large local reaction. The area may become large (4 inches or 10 cm) over 1 to 2 days, then slowly resolve over 5 to 10 days.

Having a large local reaction does not mean that you will have a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) if you are stung again. Only about 5 to 10 percent of people who have a large local reaction will have anaphylaxis if stung in the future. If you have a large local reaction, talk to your doctor or nurse to determine what steps, if any, you need to take if you are stung again.

Local reaction treatment — To reduce pain and swelling after an insect sting, you can try the following:

  • Apply a cold compress (a cold, damp washcloth or damp cloth wrapped around an ice pack) to the area.
  • If you develop itching, you can take a nonprescription antihistamine, such as cetirizine (Zyrtec).
  • A pain reliever, such as ibuprofen (sold as Advil, Motrin, and store brands), may help reduce pain.

If nonprescription treatments do not help or your pain or swelling gets worse, call your doctor or nurse.

Allergic reaction — Insect stings cause allergic reactions in some people. Symptoms of an allergic reaction usually develop quickly, and include:

  • Skin symptoms, such as hives, redness, or swelling of skin away from the area that was stung (for example, the face or lips may swell after being stung on the hand)
  • Belly cramps, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • Hoarse voice, shortness of breath, and difficulty breathing
  • Lightheadedness, dizziness, passing out

Severe allergic reactions are called anaphylaxis. You can have an anaphylactic reaction the first time you are stung.

Severe allergic reaction treatment — Severe allergic reactions are a medical emergency that can lead to death if not treated quickly. If you develop any symptoms of anaphylaxis, you need to get emergency care as soon as possible. When possible, ask someone else to call for emergency care (call 911 in the United States).

Do not drive yourself to the hospital and do not ask someone else to drive you. Calling 911 is safer than driving for two reasons:

The first and most important treatment for a severe allergic reaction is a shot of epinephrine. Epinephrine is available by prescription in prefilled syringes, called epinephrine autoinjectors. Instructions for using epinephrine are available in a separate article. (See "Patient information: Use of an epinephrine autoinjector (Beyond the Basics)".)

AM I ALLERGIC TO STINGS?

If you had any symptoms of an allergic reaction or anaphylaxis after being stung, you should make an appointment to see an allergy specialist. At this visit, the allergist will try to determine if you are allergic to stings. If you are allergic to stings, the allergist will teach you how and when to use an epinephrine autoinjector. He or she will also help you decide if you need allergy shots (called immunotherapy) to reduce your risk of anaphylaxis in the future.

Allergy testing — Testing can be done to determine if you are allergic to insect stings. Blood and skin tests are available, and both are needed in some cases. (See "Diagnosis of Hymenoptera venom allergy".)

If allergy testing shows that you are allergic to insect stings, there is a good chance that you will have a serious allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) if you are stung again. Allergy shots can greatly reduce the risk of anaphylaxis.

Allergy shots (immunotherapy) — Allergy shots, also called venom immunotherapy, can reduce your chance of having a serious or life-threatening reaction to a sting. When you are stung by an insect, the stinger injects venom into your skin, which causes the allergic reaction. Allergy shots usually contain purified venom. The first few allergy shots contain very small amounts of venom, and the amount is gradually increased until you can tolerate the amount of venom in two or more stings without having allergic symptoms.

Allergy shots are often recommended if you had:

  • A serious allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) after being stung, AND
  • Allergy testing shows that you are allergic to bee, wasp, yellow jacket, or hornet venom

Allergy shots are usually given in an allergist's office one to three times per week for a few months, and then once per month for at least three years. (See "Hymenoptera venom immunotherapy: Efficacy, indications, and mechanism of action".)

Some people continue to get allergy shots for three to five years while other people get them for longer. Most experts recommend that you continue getting allergy shots indefinitely if:

  • You had a life-threatening reaction to a past sting
  • You have a reaction to the allergy shot since this is a sign that you are very sensitive to the venom
  • You are so fearful of having a severe allergic reaction that you cannot enjoy normal outdoor activities

As a result of immunotherapy, your risk of having a serious allergic reaction after a sting becomes much lower. You should still carry an epinephrine autoinjector. (See "Hymenoptera venom immunotherapy: Determining duration of therapy".)

Epinephrine — Epinephrine, sometimes called adrenaline, is a medicine that can treat the symptoms of a serious allergic reaction. Epinephrine is available in pre-filled syringes so that you can give yourself a shot, if needed. If you had anaphylaxis after an insect sting in the past, you should always carry at least one epinephrine autoinjector (even in the winter).

However, one or even two injections of epinephrine may not be enough to stop a life-threatening reaction. This is why it is important to talk to an allergist about allergy shots if you have had a serious allergic reaction after a sting. You should also seek emergency medical care after using an epinephrine autoinjector, because the symptoms of allergic reactions sometimes come back after initially improving.

AVOIDING STINGS

Bees and wasps that are away from their nest are not aggressive and only sting when threatened (after being hit, stepped on, or swatted). Wearing brightly colored clothing or perfume does not increase the risk of being stung. Wearing white or light-colored clothing may reduce the chance of being attacked if you are near a nest.

When eating outside, keep food and drinks covered and wipe up food and drink spills quickly. Watch for yellow jackets inside drink containers. Do not walk outside without shoes.

If you find a wasp nest near your home, do not try to get rid of the nest yourself. Instead, call a pest control professional. If you have a sting allergy, avoid activities that may disturb a nest, such as mowing the lawn or pruning a hedge.

If a stinging insect is near, slowly back away and do not flail your arms. If you are being swarmed or stung, cover your mouth and nose with your hand and run inside a building or an enclosed vehicle.

WHERE TO GET MORE INFORMATION

Your healthcare provider is the best source of information for questions and concerns related to your medical problem.

This article will be updated as needed on our web site (www.uptodate.com/patients). Related topics for patients, as well as selected articles written for healthcare professionals, are also available. Some of the most relevant are listed below.

Patient level information — UpToDate offers two types of patient education materials.

The Basics — The Basics patient education pieces answer the four or five key questions a patient might have about a given condition. These articles are best for patients who want a general overview and who prefer short, easy-to-read materials.

Patient information: Insect bites and stings (The Basics)
Patient information: Insect allergy (The Basics)
Patient information: Spider bites (The Basics)

Beyond the Basics — Beyond the Basics patient education pieces are longer, more sophisticated, and more detailed. These articles are best for patients who want in-depth information and are comfortable with some medical jargon.

Patient information: Fire ants (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Anaphylaxis treatment and prevention of recurrences (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Use of an epinephrine autoinjector (Beyond the Basics)

Professional level information — Professional level articles are designed to keep doctors and other health professionals up-to-date on the latest medical findings. These articles are thorough, long, and complex, and they contain multiple references to the research on which they are based. Professional level articles are best for people who are comfortable with a lot of medical terminology and who want to read the same materials their doctors are reading.

Bee, yellow jacket, wasp, and other Hymenoptera stings: Reaction types and acute management
Diagnosis of Hymenoptera venom allergy
Entomology and control of imported fire ants
Hymenoptera venom immunotherapy: Determining duration of therapy
Hymenoptera venom immunotherapy: Efficacy, indications, and mechanism of action
Hymenoptera venom immunotherapy: Technical issues, protocols, adverse effects, and monitoring
Scorpion stings in the United States and Mexico
Stings of imported fire ants: Clinical manifestations, diagnosis, and treatment

The following organizations also provide reliable health information.

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Literature review current through: Aug 2014. | This topic last updated: Apr 2, 2013.
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