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Allergies to Insect Stings - Topic Overview

What are allergies to insect stings?

When you are stung by an insect, poisons and other toxins enter your skin. It's normal to have some swelling, redness, pain, and itching around the sting. But you may have an allergic reaction if your immune system reacts strongly to allergens in the sting.

You probably won't have a severe allergic reaction the first time you are stung. But even if your first reaction to a sting is mild, allergic reactions can get worse with each sting. Your next reaction may be more severe or even deadly.

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What causes an allergic reaction to insect stings?

An allergic reaction occurs when your immune system reacts strongly to the allergens in the sting.

A few types of stinging insects cause most allergic reactions. They are:

  • Bees.
  • Wasps.
  • Hornets.
  • Yellow jackets.
  • Fire ants.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of an allergic reaction can range from mild to severe.

Mild reactions may cause:

  • Redness, pain, and swelling around the sting.
  • Itching around the sting or anywhere on your body.

Large, local reactions may cause the same symptoms as mild reactions, plus:

  • Redness and swelling that affects an entire arm, leg, or large part of your body.
  • Swelling that continues to increase for up to 48 hours.

A large local reaction can take up to 10 days to go away.1

Severe reactions may cause:

How are allergies to insect stings diagnosed?

Your doctor may do a physical exam and ask you questions about your symptoms and past health. He or she also may want you to have allergy tests after you get better from the allergic reaction. Allergy tests, such as skin prick tests or blood tests, can help you find out which types of insect stings you are most allergic to.

How are they treated?

When you are stung

  • For a severe reaction, such as confusion and trouble breathing:
    • Call 911.
    • If you have epinephrine, give yourself a shot. Then go to the emergency room.
  • For a large, local reaction or a mild reaction, you can typically treat it at home.
    • Use an ice pack to reduce swelling. If you can, raise the body part where you were stung.
    • Take a nonprescription pain reliever, such as aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol, for example), or ibuprofen (Advil, for example). Do not give aspirin to anyone younger than age 20 because of the risk of Reye syndrome.
    • Take an antihistamine to help with the itching. Read and follow the warnings on the label. And don't give antihistamines to your child unless you've checked with the doctor first.
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