For most people, an insect sting causes nothing more than some mild pain or discomfort—most people are not allergic to these stings. For people who are, however, insect stings can be very serious.
Potentially life-threatening allergic reactions from stings occur in 0.4 to 0.8 percent of children, and in 3 percent of adults. At least 90 to 100 deaths take place each year as a result of insect sting anaphylaxis. Most insect stings come from a few specific insects, and there are ways you can help manage and treat these bites if they occur.
Common Insect Stings
Most serious reactions to stings are caused by one of five different types of insects:
- • Yellow jackets: Black with yellow markings and found in various climates. Nests are typically underground, but can also be in walls of buildings, cracks in masonry or in woodpiles.
- • Honey bees: Bees with round, fuzzy bodies and dark brown and yellow markings. They’re commonly found in honeycombs in trees, in old tires or in other partially-protected areas.
- • Paper wasps: Slender wasps with black, brown, red and yellow markings. They live in a circular comb under eaves, behind shutters or in shrubs or woodpiles.
- • Hornets: Black or brown with white, orange or yellow markings. They have gray or brown nests that are usually found in trees.
- • Fire ants: Reddish-brown ants that live in large mounds, mostly in warmer climates. Fire ants will attack with little warning, and now may be the number one agent of insect stings.
The severity of insect stings depend on the person and the insect in question. Fire ants, yellow jackets, hornets and wasps can all sting repeatedly, while honey bees leave their stingers behind after a single sting.
Common symptoms of serious allergic reactions include:
- • Swelling of the face, throat or tongue
- • Trouble breathing
- • Dizziness
- • Stomach cramps
- • Nausea or diarrhea
- • Itchiness and hives over large areas of the body
Insects stings can also cause serious symptoms that are not related to allergies, such as a toxic reaction—this refers to a situation in which insect venom acts like poison in the body. Symptoms may be similar to an allergic reaction and can include fainting, seizures, shock and even death. Toxic reactions usually require multiple stings.
For people who may be allergic to certain insect stings, proper diagnosis is vital. An allergist will take a detailed medical history, including questions about any past stings and your reactions to them. They also may perform one of a few tests, including skin prick tests, blood tests or intradermal skin tests.
Management and Treatment
Treating sting allergies involves a two-step approach: emergency treatment as a reaction occurs and preventive treatment of the underlying allergy with venom immunotherapy.
- • Emergency treatment: Life-threatening reactions can process very quickly and require immediate attention. Emergency treatment might include drugs, fluids, oxygen and other methods. Many people who are at risk of these kinds of reactions keep injectable epinephrine for self-administration (EpiPens).
- • Venom immunotherapy: This is a program administered by an allergist to help prevent future allergic reactions. It involves gradually increasing doses of insect venom to decrease patient sensitivity to said venom.
Another big part of managing insect allergies is avoiding stings altogether. Learn the areas where insects roam, and practice proper avoidance. Other precautions include:
- • Avoid wearing sandals or walking barefoot in grass
- • Never swat a flying insect
- • Do not drink from open beverage cans
- • Keep food covered outdoors
- • Cover garbage cans with tight-fitting lids
- • Avoid sweet-smelling cosmetic items
- • Avoid bright-colored clothing
- • Do yard work and gardening with caution
- • Keep window and door screens in good repair and drive with car windows closed
- • Keep prescribed medications on you at all times, and follow instructions if you’re stung
If you’re having an allergic reaction, seek immediate medical attention. If you’ve had a reaction to an insect sting, see an allergist for recommendations on treatment and management.
Our Utah Valley allergy specialists diagnose and treat patients who suffer from allergic and immunologic disorders. We work with both pediatric and adult patients and use the most comprehensive and up-to-date medical therapies.
“Insect Sting Allergy.” American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. http://acaai.org/allergies/types/insect-sting-allergies
“Stinging Insect Allergy.” American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. http://www.aaaai.org/conditions-and-treatments/allergies/stinging-insect-allergy