Allergic Reactions to Insect Stings
Bee, wasp, yellow jacket, hornet, or fire ant stings most often trigger allergic reactions. However, most people are not allergic to insect stings and may mistake a normal sting reaction for an allergic reaction. By knowing the difference, you can prevent unnecessary worry and visits to the doctor.
The severity of an insect sting reaction varies from person to person. There are three types of reactions -- normal, localized, and allergic:
- A normal reaction will result in pain, swelling, and redness around the sting site.
- A large local reaction will result in swelling that extends beyond the sting site. For example, a person stung on the ankle may have swelling of the entire leg. While it often looks alarming, it is generally no more serious than a normal reaction.
- The most serious reaction to an insect sting is an allergic one (described below). This condition requires immediate medical attention.
What Are the Symptoms of an Allergic Reaction?
Symptoms of a severe allergic reaction (called an anaphylactic reaction or anaphylaxis) may include one or more of the following:
- Difficulty breathing
- Hives that appear as a red, itchy rash and spread to areas beyond the sting
- Swelling of the face, throat, or mouth tissue
- Wheezing or difficulty swallowing
- Restlessness and anxiety
- Rapid pulse
- Dizziness or a sharp drop in blood pressure
Although severe allergic reactions are not that common, they can lead to shock, cardiac arrest, and unconsciousness in 10 minutes or less. This type of reaction can occur within minutes after a sting and can be fatal. Get emergency treatment as soon as possible.
A mild allergic reaction to an insect sting may cause one or more of the following symptoms at the site of the sting:
- Mild to moderate swelling
- Warmth at the sting site
People who have experienced an allergic reaction to an insect sting have a 60% chance of a similar or worse reaction if they are stung again.
How Common Are Sting Allergies?
About 2 million Americans are allergic to the venom of stinging insects. Many of these individuals are at risk for life-threatening allergic reactions. Approximately 50 deaths each year in the U.S. are attributed to allergic reactions to insect stings.
How Are Normal or Localized Reactions Treated?
First, if stung on the hand, remove any rings from your fingers immediately.
If stung by a bee, the insect usually leaves a sac of venom and a stinger in your skin. Remove the stinger within 30 seconds to avoid receiving more venom. Gently scrape the sac and stinger out with a fingernail or a stiff-edged object like a credit card. Do not squeeze the sac or pull on the stinger -- this will cause the release of more venom into the skin.
Wash the stung area with soap and water and then apply an antiseptic.