Allergy vs severe reaction
Bees, wasps, yellow jackets, hornets, and fire ants all belong to the same order of insects, Hymenoptera, so their venoms cause similar reactions if you are stung or bitten.
People’s bodies react in one of three ways:
- 85-90% experience a small local reaction—pain, redness and some swelling just around the sting site.
- 10% experience what is called a “large local reaction”—pain, itching, redness and swelling extending well beyond the sting site, 4 to 6 inches or more. (This is me! When I was stung in the hand last year, my entire arm swelled up.)
- 1-3% experience the life-threatening allergic reaction called anaphylaxis, which requires immediate medical attention.
And your reactions can change over time. I experienced many bee and wasp stings as a child, but only in the last few years as an adult have I had the more severe symptoms. Why? I don’t know. It’s a mystery.
Prevention of bee stings
There are a few things you can do to lessen your chance of being stung, such as not wearing perfume outside, or not wearing brightly-colored clothing.
And when I’m in my garden I always keep an eye out for evidence of a nest, especially those in the ground or near the house. If you have small children or have a bee sting allergy, it would be prudent to call an exterminator.
First aid for bee stings
Sometimes bee stings happen. That’s life. And here’s what you do:
- Remove the stinger. We used to be told to scrape the stinger away with a credit card rather than using tweezers so we didn’t squeeze more bee venom into the skin. Actually, it’s more helpful to just remove it quickly, regardless of how you get it out.
- Apply an ice pack. Immediate application of cold will help with the pain and swelling. Leave the ice pack on for 15 minutes at a time, every hour, until the pain subsides.
- Take acetaminophen or ibuprofen for the pain.
- Don’t bother with pastes of baking soda or meat tenderizer. They don’t work. Yes, theoretically they can neutralize the venom, but they aren’t absorbed far enough under the skin to get near the venom.
- Seek medical attention if significant swelling occurs around the sting, or if hives develop anywhere on the body. These symptoms might indicate an allergy or sensitivity to bee stings, and future stings might be more dangerous.
In case of emergency
If someone is stung by a bee and you see any of these symptoms, call 911:
- Difficulty breathing
- Swelling around the face, lips or throat
- Confusion, dizziness
- Loss of consciousness
If you or one of your children has experienced a serious reaction to bee stings in the past, you will be advised to keep a dose of epinephrine with you in case of an emergency.
And if you are uninsured, or have a high-deductible health plan—like me—that doesn’t cover prescription medications until your deductible is met, be prepared for sticker shock. An EpiPen (two actually, since they are only sold in two-packs now) costs close to $700!
Related post: Why are EpiPens so expensive?
The maker of the EpiPen, Mylan, offers a co-pay card that can save you $100. Or talk to your doctor about getting pre-filled syringes of epinephrine. They are a little trickier to use, and have to be replaced every few months, but cost a fraction of the EpiPen.
Generally, most bees and wasps aren’t looking to start a fight. Respect their boundaries and maybe they’ll return the favor.
This post has been updated since its original publication in 2016.