Bee and wasp stings that cause a localized reaction with minor swelling that occurs only at the site of the sting are usually treated successfully with first aid measures at home. Larger areas of swelling that spread may require medical examination, decease but do not usually require emergency treatment. Cases of a severe allergic reaction called anaphylaxis due to a bee or wasp sting require immediate emergency medical treatment. This article will discuss how each type of reaction to a bee or wasp sting can be treated.
The first measure to take in treating localized reactions to bee stings is to remove the stinger that is left behind in the skin. Wasps do not leave behind a stinger because their stingers have smaller barbs that do not get caught in human skin. Bees can only sting a person once, because their stingers have large barbs on them that get trapped in the skin layer. When a bee stings someone, their stinger gets separated from their abdomen, along with the venom sac. The venom sac has muscles that contract and keep injecting venom after it has become detached from the bee. It is best to remove the stinger as soon as possible. It was long thought that the stinger and venom sac had to be scraped out with an object such as a credit card to prevent the additional release of venom, but current research suggests that this approach may be too slow to have any additional benefit. The faster that the stinger is pulled out, the less venom is injected, so using your fingers is an acceptable approach. If possible, try to scrape the stinger out with a fingernail and avoid applying pressure to the venom sac.
After the stinger is removed, clean the area of the sting with soap and water. If you are experiencing swelling or itching, over-the-counter diphenhydramine (Benadryl), an antihistamine, can help. Diphenhydramine is available as an oral medication or a topical gel that can be applied directly to insect stings. Creams such as calamine lotion can also decrease itching and irritation after a bee or wasp sting. Applying cold compresses to the site of the sting can reduce swelling. It is recommended to avoid touching or scratching the sting site as much as possible, because this increases the amount of irritation and may open the skin, which increases the risk of developing an infection.
Severe allergic reactions to bee or wasp stings, called anaphylaxis, require emergency medical treatment immediately. Anaphylaxis is extremely dangerous because swelling of the airways can cause asphyxiation (lack of oxygen to tissues) and respiratory failure and the drop in blood pressure that occurs in anaphylactic shock can cause cardiac arrest. Individuals who have had severe allergic reactions previously may carry an EpiPen in case of anaphylaxis. An EpiPen is a prescription medication that is carried by the person it is prescribed to at all times. If you carry an EpiPen, make sure you always have one that is not past its expiration date. EpiPen contains ephinephrine, which is also called adrenaline, in the form of an injection. Ephinephrine can counteract the effects of an allergic reaction, increasing blood pressure and decreasing the swelling of the airways. If you have an EpiPen, it should be injected into the thigh at the first signs of an allergic reaction. After using an EpiPen, seek medical attention immediately because additional treatment may be required. Those who have had multiple allergic reactions may also benefit from wearing a medical alert ID bracelet that says you are allergic to bee and wasp stings.
Individuals who have not previously had a severe allergic reaction in the past may not carry an EpiPen. These individuals should seek emergency medical attention immediately. Emergency medical technicians will probably give these individuals an epinephrine injection on arrival. Other medical treatments for anaphylaxis include IV antihistamines, IV cortisone, beta antagonsits and oxygen. Antihistamines and cortisone reduce swelling, while beta antagonists and oxygen supplementation help with breathing difficulties. In the case of cardiac arrest or respiratory failure, emergency medical technicians may perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or CPR, and other resuscitation measures.
Another therapy that can benefit people who suffer from severe bee or wasp sting allergies is called immunotherapy. Immunotherapy is a series of injections with the goal to reduce sensitivity to the offending allergen, such as wasp or bee venom, and reduce the chances of having a life-threatening allergic reaction in the future. As the immune system is gradually exposed to greater amounts of the bee venom, it becomes less sensitive to the venom and the severity of the allergic response is reduced over time. This therapy takes a few years to complete, but it can reduce your risk of having another life-threatening anaphylactic response to bee or wasp stings.