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Allergen: Insect Stings

Insect stings that most commonly cause allergic reactions

Insects that are members of the Hymenoptera family most commonly cause allergic reactions. These include:

  • Bees

  • Wasps

  • Hornets

  • Yellow jackets

  • Fire ants

Allergic reactions to insect stings

Usually, the reaction is short-lived, with redness and swelling followed by pain and itching. Generally, the reaction lasts only a few hours, although some may last longer.

For other people, however, allergic reactions to these insect stings can be life-threatening. This severe reaction is a medical emergency that can involve organ systems throughout the body. The reaction is called anaphylaxis and can include severe symptoms such as:

  • Itching and hives over most of the body

  • Swelling of the throat and tongue

  • Difficulty in breathing and tightness in the chest

  • Dizziness

  • Headache

  • Stomach cramps, nausea, or diarrhea

  • Rapid fall in blood pressure

  • Shock

  • Loss of consciousness

  • Hoarse voice or swelling of the tongue

Immediate medical attention is required.

Can insect stings be prevented?

Avoidance of insects is the best preventive measure. Suggestions include:

  • When outdoors, be cautious of drinking from open soft drink cans. Stinging insects are attracted to them, and can crawl inside.

  • Keep food covered when eating outdoors.

  • Avoid sweet-smelling perfumes, hairsprays, and deodorants.

  • Avoid wearing bright-colored clothing with flowery patterns. 

  • Avoid going barefoot, and wear closed-toe shoes when walking in grassy areas.

  • When gardening, watch for nests in trees, shrubs, and flower beds.

  • Other areas in which to use caution: swimming pools, woodpiles, under eaves of houses, and trash containers.

Treatment for insect stings

Specific treatment for insect stings will be determined by your doctor based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history

  • Extent of the reaction

  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies

  • Expectations for the course of the reaction

  • Your opinion or preference

Suggestions for immediate treatment for highly allergic people, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, include:

  • When possible, immediately remove stinger, and scrape over the area with a fingernail. However, do not squeeze the area, which may force the venom into the body.

  • An emergency treatment kit should be kept nearby at all times. Talk with your doctor about what it should include.

  • Seek emergency care as soon as possible.

Online Medical Reviewer: Berry, Judith, PhD, APRN
Online Medical Reviewer: Sohrabi, Farrokh, MD
Last Review Date: 7/25/2012
© 2000-2014 Krames StayWell, 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

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