What to do if you are stung by an insect

Last Modified: 5/11/2022

This post was written by Heather Willison, MSN, FNP-C, PPG – Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

As the saying goes, April showers will bring May flowers, which often attract bees and other insects. While stinging insects do not pose a problem for everyone, an estimated 2 million Americans are allergic to the venom produced by stinging insects. As we head further into spring, it’s important to know how to handle a sting and the best ways to decrease the chance of being stung in the first place.

How to treat

Most stings will likely result in pain, redness, itching and swelling around the sting site. This is a normal response and should not typically be cause for concern. If it is a bee sting, they likely left behind a stinger full of venom. To properly remove a stinger, you’ll want to follow these steps:

  1. Remove the stinger gently by scraping it with a credit card or clean fingernail. It can be tempting to pull out the stinger with tweezers but doing so can cause the venom to release into the skin, intensifying the reaction.
  2. Wash the area with warm soapy water.
  3. Apply calamine lotion or hydrocortisone to the site to reduce swelling and itching.
  4. Cover the sting site with sterile gauze.
  5. Apply ice for comfort and to reduce any swelling.
  6. Elevating the area that was stung may also help reduce swelling.
  7. If needed, you can take an antihistamine or an anti-inflammatory such as ibuprofen. These medications will also help reduce any swelling, itching and discomfort.

Generally, there can be significant swelling from an insect sting, which can be alarming at first glance. But it’s important to note that this response is considered a large local reaction, and the swelling usually peaks around 48 hours and completely goes away within a week.

Allergic reaction

As stated earlier, it is possible to be allergic to the venom from a stinging insect, resulting in a severe allergic reaction or anaphylaxis. If this happens, you or the individual who was stung should go to the Emergency Department if they experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Itching
  • Hives
  • Dizziness
  • Swelling of the tongue or throat
  • Wheezing or difficulty breathing
  • Fainting or loss of consciousness

For anyone with an allergy to stinging insects, it is crucial to keep injectable epinephrine on hand and to wear a medical alert bracelet so that others know of the life-threatening allergy. A medical provider must prescribe injectable epinephrine.

How to avoid stinging insects

While not foolproof, there are measures and safety precautions you can take to decrease your risk of getting stung by a bee, wasp or hornet. A few tried and true tips to keep you safe this summer include:

  • Wearing light-colored clothing without floral-prints
  • Avoiding strong fragrances and perfumes 
  • Wearing shoes while outdoors
  • Using gloves while gardening
  • Using care when picking fruit from the ground or trees
  • Being cautious when spending time in outdoor areas where food is served (picnics, garden, etc.)
  • Keeping the lid on trash cans and/or spraying them with repellants
  • Avoiding drinking out of opened bottles/cans to prevent stings inside the mouth
  • Washing hands after eating/handling sticky or sweet foods outdoors
  • Keeping uneaten foods covered when eating outdoors

Furthermore, knowing where the different types of stinging insects like to dwell can be helpful. Honeybees live in and around a honeycomb structure or hive. Yellowjackets reside in nests they build in the ground or old logs and walls. Hornets and wasps make their homes in bushes, trees, and sometimes on buildings.

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