Health & Medicine

Take care when you’re outside: Bee and wasp stings can be serious

Bee and wasp stings can be life-threatening in some cases.
Bee and wasp stings can be life-threatening in some cases. The Sacramento Bee/MCT

As the weather gets warmer and we spend more time outdoors, bee stings become more common. For most people, an insect sting is uncomfortable and a minor inconvenience, but some people develop a serious reaction.

For most stings, basic wound care with soap and water and removal of the stinger is sufficient. Many people experience itching and pain at the sting site, but it usually can be managed at home. If redness or pain spreads, or there are whole-body symptoms, medical attention is required.

For those who develop a large localized reaction — redness and swelling that extends beyond the immediate area of the sting — a cold compress and over-the-counter anti-inflammatory and antihistamine medications can help provide relief. This reaction typically peaks in 48 hours and resolves itself in about a week, but in some cases a tropical or oral steroid might be required.

A secondary infection or bacterial infection of the surrounding skin might look similar to the large localized reaction, with redness and swelling beyond the sting site. However, it might peak a little later and include fever or red streaks around the sting site. A bacterial infection often requires an oral antibiotic.

Bee and wasp stings can be life-threatening in some cases, affecting the entire body. Anaphylaxis is a whole-body allergic reaction that can cause chest tightness, throat swelling, wheezing, trouble breathing, lightheadedness, low blood pressure, shock and even death. Bee and wasp stings are a leading cause of anaphylaxis-related deaths.

Symptoms of anaphylaxis happen within minutes to hours of the sting and progress quickly, so it’s important to immediately contact 911 or go to an emergency room if you experience a whole-body allergic reaction. Treatment is immediately required and includes injection of epinephrine, such as an EpiPen, and stabilization at the hospital. After the reaction is treated, the patient might require consultation with an allergy specialist for testing and possibly allergy shots to decrease the severity of future reactions.

To avoid a bee or wasp sting, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology recommends wearing shoes when outdoors, not drinking from cans, bottles or straws when outside, covering trash cans, and checking for bee and wasp nests before mowing. If a bee or wasp does land on you, stay still. Sudden or rapid movement can startle a bee or wasp and encourage stinging.

If you are stung and experience symptoms of a large localized reaction or infection, contact your physician immediately to make sure you are taking the steps to avoid further problems. If you think you or someone around you is experiencing anaphylaxis, call 911 immediately.

Dr. Sarah M. O’Leary is with KentuckyOne Health Primary Care Associates.