Children & Bee Stings
Protective Shots Lower Risk, Research Shows
Aug. 11, 2004 -- For most people, bee stings are merely painful
reminders that summer has its downsides, but for those who are allergic, stings
can be deadly. It has long been thought that kids usually outgrow allergic
reactions to insect stings, but new research shows that this is often not the
In one of the largest and longest follow-up studies of children
with insect sting allergies, Johns Hopkins researchers reported that dangerous
allergic reactions to stings continued well into adulthood in a significant
percentage of people. This was much less likely, however, when children were
given allergy shots.
Just 5% of children with a history of severe allergic reactions
to stings who received the allergy shots, known as venom immunotherapy,
experienced moderate to severe allergic reactions to stings as adults. In
contrast, 32% of the study participants experienced serious allergic reactions
to stings later in life if they had not been given the allergy shots.
"The good news is that 62% of the children did appear to
outgrow allergies to insect stings, but the bad news is that the rest did
not," lead researcher David Golden, MD, tells WebMD. "The ultimate goal
of our research is to come up with tests to tell the two groups apart."
The Buzz on Bee Stings
There are roughly 40 fatal allergic reactions to bee, wasp, and
other insect stings in the U.S. each year. Studies suggest that 1% of children
and 3% of adults have life-threatening allergic reactions to stings that go
beyond the expected swelling and pain. These reactions could range from slight
difficulty breathing and dizziness to shock.
Approved by the FDA in 1979, venom immunotherapy involves
injections of purified bee or other insect venom given in small doses to build
up tolerance to the sting over time. Treatments typically last three to five
While the therapy is generally recommended for children with a
history of moderate to severe reactions to insect stings, it is widely
underused even though it is highly effective, Golden says.
In an effort to determine the persistence of insect sting
allergies and the protection conveyed by the treatment, Golden and colleagues
collected follow-up data on more than 500 children six to 32 years after they
were treated for allergic reactions to insect stings. The findings are
published in the Aug. 12 issue of TheNew England Journal of
Some 40% of the participants had been stung again after their
initial sting. Moderate reactions to stings included throat and chest
discomfort, difficulty breathing, dizziness, and low blood pressure. A reaction
was considered severe in cases involving serious breathing difficulties, severe
dizziness, marked low blood pressure, or unconsciousness.
Roughly a third of the untreated adults who had experienced
moderate to severe reactions as children had similar reactions to later stings,
compared with one in 20 treated adults.