Insect Stings and Allergic Reactions: What You Need to Know

A close up of a yellow jacket wasp sitting on top of a yellow flower with other flowers in the background

As we head towards the end of spring and into early summer, it’s a busy time for bees, yellow jackets, and other flying insects.

Bees spend springtime looking for new sources of nectar and pollen while also reproducing and finding new places to build hives. Wasps are out and about as well, looking for food and building new nests.

Bees, wasps, and hornets remain active at other times of the year as well - but due to their increased activity level, your chances of encountering flying insects while out and about increase during the spring and summer months.

For the most part, these insects avoid stinging humans whenever possible. However, stings do happen, normally when a person startles a bee or stumbles upon a wasp unexpectedly.

When you get stung, venom from the stinger is released into your body. As a result, your body is going to have some kind of reaction.

For most people, stings are painful, but are a brief annoyance – the pain from the sting starts to lessen after a few hours, even if it may take a couple of days to fully dissipate.

However, for some people, stings can be deadly: those who are allergic to bee, wasp, or hornet venom can have life-threatening reactions.

What are the different types of bee, wasp, and hornet sting reactions?

Different people can have drastically different reactions to a sting from the same kind of bee, wasp, or hornet. 

These reactions include:

  • General Reactions: Most people that get stung will develop swelling and redness in the area around the sting. This usually improves in a couple of hours.
  • Local Reactions: 10% of people will have severe redness and swelling covering a large area (about two inches in diameter). These reactions normally last two days then slowly resolve over the next five to ten days; they can be treated with a cold compress or antihistamines.
  • Allergic/Anaphylactic Reactions: These reactions develop quickly and progress faster than you think. These reactions are medical emergencies – do not attempt to drive yourself to the hospital. Call 9-1-1.

What are the symptoms of an allergic reaction to an insect sting?

Many people who are allergic to stings don’t know they have the allergy.

In addition, it’s possible to develop an allergy to stings later in life, even if you didn’t have issues in the past.

As a result, it’s important to know the symptoms of an allergic reaction to a sting.

Warning signs include:

  • Hives, redness, and swelling in areas not around the site of the sting.
  • Hoarse voice, shortness of breath, or other difficulty breathing.
  • Nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain.
  • Dizziness or feeling lightheaded and passing out.

Allergic reactions won't always occur immediately, so it’s important to monitor for the onset of symptoms in the hours after a sting.

Why should you call 9-1-1 if you have symptoms of an allergic reaction?

Time is of the essence when it comes to treating allergic reactions.

When you call 9-1-1, paramedics can begin treatment as soon as they arrive. 

If there are other complications or worsening symptoms, like passing out, airway swelling, or worse, they’ll be able to intervene on the way to the hospital.

EpiPens and allergic reactions to insect stings

If you know that you’re allergic to bee, wasp, or hornet venom, you should carry an EpiPen with you at all times. 

EpiPens are devices that inject epinephrine into the body after an allergic reaction; the medication helps keep the airway open and prevents the reaction from getting worse.

However, it’s important to know that EpiPens do not necessarily “cure” a reaction – the injection isn’t all that needs to be done!

Think of an EpiPen as a sort of “pause” button: it buys time after the reaction and keeps your body's reaction from progressing while you wait to be examined by a medical professional.

It’s important that you still get checked out, even if you feel better after the EpiPen injection.

Some people need multiple doses of epinephrine to keep the reaction at bay, while for others, symptoms may resolve temporarily, only to return a few hours later.

Monitoring by a medical professional helps ensure that the reaction remains safely under control.

Fear of insect stings doesn’t need to keep you from enjoying your spring and summer.

If you’re allergic to insect venom, play it safe and ensure that you keep your EpiPen with you when you’re enjoying the nice weather.

If you have no knowledge of an insect venom allergy and get stung, keep an eye out for concerning symptoms and react accordingly.

Remember: most bees, wasps, and hornets have no interest in stinging people! If you’re near one of these insects, don’t freak out and start swatting at it.

If you remain calm, the bee, wasp, or hornet will likely leave after a few moments – and you’ll both be able to enjoy the rest of the day without incident.

Note: While this post focuses on flying insects, it’s worth noting that there are other stinging insects, like fire ants, that can cause allergic reactions as well . The stings may not be the exact same, but the information above remains relevant.

Susan Hoover, CNP sees patients at Health Express. Find your nearest Health Express location.