bee sting

Insect bites, particularly those from bees and wasps, can quickly turn a pleasant day outdoors into a painful experience. Though these stings are often manageable at home, a sting can result in an infection or allergic reaction. This can lead to a visit to the doctor’s office or urgent care.

If you spend time outdoors around bees and wasps, you should understand how to identify, treat, and respond to stings.

But when should you seek medical treatment for a bee or wasp sting? This information may help.

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Bee or Wasp Sting Symptoms

Bee and wasp stings are similar. They both involve the insect injecting venom into the sting site. Both result in a red welt, minor pain (a “stinging” sensation), and minor swelling. Sometimes, the puncture site appears white.

However, treatment for stings differs. Bees leave their stinger and venom sac in the skin, which continues to release venom. On the other hand, wasps don’t leave their stinger in and can sting multiple times. Here’s what to do if you get stung by a bee or wasp.

Bee sting self-care

After a bee sting, determining whether the stinger has lodged itself in your skin is crucial. You can know if a bee sting is still in you if a small black dot, persistent pain, and swelling are occurring at the sting site. Take the following actions if you see that the stinger is still in your skin:

  • Remove the stinger. Use a credit card, fingernail, or similar object to scrape it away. Don’t use tweezers — they can squeeze more venom into the sting site.
  • Apply cold. Next, apply a cold pack to reduce pain and swelling. Symptoms should subside within a few hours.
  • Manage pain and swelling. Take oral antihistamines, like diphenhydramine (Benadryl), to reduce swelling and itch. Take ibuprofen or acetaminophen to relieve pain.

How long does the pain from a sting last?

Typically, the pain from a bee or wasp sting lasts just a few hours. How long bee venom stays in your system is another matter. The breakdown process depends on several factors, including the amount of venom injected, the sting’s location, and your immune response.

Swelling usually peaks within the first 48 hours. This period allows the body’s immune system to respond to the venom, including releasing histamine and other chemicals that cause inflammation. Depending on the amount of venom and the body’s response, the swelling may take several days to go down.

Wasp sting self-care

If you’re stung by a wasp:

  • Clean the area. Because wasps can sting multiple times and don’t leave a stinger, focus on cleaning the area with soap and water to prevent infection.
  • Use a cold compress. Apply a cold pack to the sting site to reduce swelling and pain.
  • Treat symptoms with medicine. Same as you would for bee stings, use antihistamines and pain relievers to alleviate symptoms.

Your body’s reaction to wasp venom will vary, but the sting may stay swollen for up to 48 hours. If the sting site remains swollen after two days, consider calling your doctor.

Some people may have a stronger allergic reaction to an insect’s venom, leading to a very large, swollen welt that may grow in size over 48 hours. This reaction should remain near the sting site and not spread to other body areas.

Preventing Bee or Wasp Stings

You can take several preventative steps to minimize the risk of bee and wasp stings. That’s especially important if you spend much time outdoors or have severe reactions to insect stings.

Here are some practical tips:

  • Approach water carefully. Pools of water may attract bees and wasps, especially in hot weather. Take caution around swimming pools, birdbaths, and other sources of standing water.
  • Avoid floral patterns. Bees and wasps might mistake floral patterns on clothing for actual flowers. Opt for solid colors when choosing outerwear.
  • Avoid perfumed products. Strong scents attract insects, including bees and wasps. When planning to spend time outdoors, avoid wearing perfumed soaps, lotions, and hair products.
  • Check for nests. Regularly inspect your property for bee hives or wasp nests. If you find a nest, don’t try to remove it yourself. Contact a professional pest control service.
  • Keep garbage cans sealed. Discarded food items attract insects, so ensure outdoor garbage cans have tight-fitting lids to prevent attraction.
  • Keep windows and doors screened. To prevent bees and wasps from entering your home, ensure that the screens on your windows and doors are in good repair.
  • Remain calm and move slowly. If a bee or wasp approaches, stay calm and move away slowly. Swatting at the insect or making rapid movements can provoke it to sting.
  • Take caution when bringing food or drinks outdoors. Open food attracts insects. Keep food covered and take caution when drinking sugary beverages outdoors (soda cans are notorious for hiding wasps).
  • Use insect repellent. Some insect repellents can deter bees and wasps. Products containing DEET or picaridin may offer some protection, though their effectiveness can vary.
  • Wear protective clothing. Wear long-sleeved shirts, pants, and closed shoes to minimize exposed skin when working in gardens or areas where bees and wasps are present. Light-colored clothing is less attractive to bees and wasps than bright or dark colors are.

When to See a Doctor for an Insect Sting

If the allergic reaction to the sting spreads throughout your body, seek medical attention.

This reaction might come in the form of symptoms such as:

  • Itching and hives.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Paleness.
  • Sweaty skin.
  • Weak pulse.

Any of these symptoms could indicate a severe allergic reaction to the insect sting, and you should immediately seek help.

The most serious threat of an insect sting is anaphylactic shock, a life-threatening swelling of the throat and tongue that can prevent breathing. This is a cause for concern and that requires emergency professional medical attention as soon as possible, even if you only have one or two symptoms.

If you have a known bee allergy, use an epinephrine injector immediately to prevent anaphylaxis and call 911.

Also, if you receive multiple stings, such as from a swarm of bees or wasps, that is a cause for concern, so seek medical treatment immediately. The venom can build up in the body and cause a severe allergic reaction.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

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