What are bee stings?
Bee stings are a common outdoor nuisance. In most cases, bee stings are just annoying, and home treatment is all that’s necessary to ease the pain of bee stings. But if you’re allergic to bee stings or you get stung numerous times, you may have a more-serious reaction that requires emergency treatment.
How common are bee stings?
This bee stings are extremely common. It can be managed by reducing your risk factors. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.
What are the symptoms of bee stings?
Bee stings can produce different reactions, ranging from temporary pain and discomfort to a severe allergic reaction. Having one type of reaction doesn’t mean you’ll always have the same reaction every time you’re stung, or that the next reaction will necessarily be more severe.
Most of the time, bee sting symptoms are minor and include:
- Instant, sharp burning pain at the sting site
- A red welt at the sting area
- Slight swelling around the sting area
In most people, the swelling and pain go away within a few hours.
Some people who get stung by a bee or other insect have a bit stronger reaction, with signs and symptoms such as:
- Extreme redness
- Swelling at the site of the sting that gradually enlarges over the next day or two
Moderate reactions tend to resolve over five to 10 days. Having a moderate reaction doesn’t mean you’ll have a severe allergic reaction the next time you’re stung. But some people develop similar moderate reactions each time they’re stung. If this happens to you, talk to your doctor about treatment and prevention, especially if the reaction becomes more severe each time.
Severe allergic reaction
A severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) to bee stings is potentially life-threatening and requires emergency treatment. A small percentage of people who are stung by a bee or other insect quickly develop anaphylaxis. Signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis include:
- Skin reactions, including hives and itching and flushed or pale skin
- Difficulty breathing
- Swelling of the throat and tongue
- A weak, rapid pulse
- Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
- Dizziness or fainting
- Loss of consciousness
People who have a severe allergic reaction to a bee sting have a 30 to 60 percent chance of anaphylaxis the next time they’re stung. Talk to your doctor or an allergy specialist about prevention measures such as immunotherapy (“allergy shots”) to avoid a similar reaction in case you get stung again.
Multiple bee stings
Generally, insects such as bees and wasps aren’t aggressive and only sting in self-defense. In most cases, this results in one or perhaps a few stings. In some cases a person will disrupt a hive or swarm of bees and get multiple stings. Some types of bees — such as Africanized honeybees — are more likely than are other bees to swarm, stinging in a group.
If you get stung more than a dozen times, the accumulation of venom may induce a toxic reaction and make you feel quite sick. Signs and symptoms include:
- Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
- A feeling of spinning (vertigo)
- Dizziness or fainting
Multiple stings can be a medical emergency in children, older adults, and people who have heart or breathing problems.
There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.
When should I see my doctor?
In most cases, bee stings don’t require a visit to your doctor. In more-severe cases, you’ll need immediate care.
Call emergency services if you’re having a serious reaction to a bee sting that suggests anaphylaxis, even if it’s just one or two signs or symptoms. If you were prescribed an emergency epinephrine autoinjector (EpiPen, Auvi-Q, others), use it right away as your doctor directed.
Seek prompt medical care if you’ve been swarmed by bees and have multiple stings.
Make an appointment to see your doctor if:
- Bee sting symptoms don’t go away within a few days
- You’ve had other symptoms of an allergic response to a bee sting.
What causes bee stings?
To sting, a bee jabs a barbed stinger into the skin. Bee sting venom contains proteins that affect skin cells and the immune system, causing pain and swelling around the sting area. In people with a bee sting allergy, bee venom can trigger a more-serious immune system reaction.
What increases my risk for bee stings?
There are many risk factors for bee stings, such as:
- You live in an area where bees are especially active or with beehives nearby
- Your work or hobbies require spending time outside
You’re more likely to have an allergic reaction to bee stings if you’ve had an allergic reaction to a bee sting in the past, even if it was minor.
Adults tend to have more-severe reactions than children do and are more likely to die of anaphylaxis than children are.
Diagnosis & treatment
The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.
How are bee stings diagnosed?
If you’ve had a reaction to bee stings that suggests you might be allergic to bee venom, your doctor may suggest one or both of the following tests:
- Skin test. During skin testing, a small amount of allergen extract (in this case, bee venom) is injected into the skin of your arm or upper back. This test is safe and won’t cause any serious reactions. If you’re allergic to bee stings, you’ll develop a raised bump on your skin at the test site.
- Allergy blood test. A blood test can measure your immune system’s response to bee venom by measuring the amount of allergy-causing antibodies in your bloodstream. A blood sample is sent to a medical laboratory, where it can be tested for evidence of sensitivity to possible allergens.
Allergy skin tests and allergy blood tests are often used together to diagnose insect allergies. Your doctor may also want to test you for allergies to yellow jackets, hornets and wasps — which can cause allergic reactions similar to those of bee stings.
How are bee stings treated?
Most insect stings for someone who is not allergic need no more than first aid given at home. Then you can avoid further stings by wearing protective clothing, using insect repellent, and staying out of infested areas.
Here are the steps you need to take after someone who is allergic has been stung:
- Remove any stingers immediately. Some experts recommend scraping out the stinger with a credit card.
- Applying ice to the site may provide some mild relief. Apply ice for 20 minutes once every hour as needed. Wrap the ice in a towel or keep a cloth between the ice and skin to keep from freezing the skin.
- Taking an antihistamine such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) or a nonsedating one such as loratadine (Claritin) will help with itching and swelling.
- Take acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin)for pain relief as needed.
- Wash the sting site with soap and water. Placing hydrocortisone cream on the sting can help relieve redness, itching, and swelling.
If it’s been more than 10 years since your last tetanus booster, get a booster within the next few days.
Most insect stings require no additional medical care.
If you know you may be allergic, especially if you’ve had a severe reaction in the past when stung by a bee or wasp, seek immediate medical help. Take an antihistamine such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) or a nonsedating one such as loratadine (Claritin) as soon as possible. If you have been prescribed epinephrine (Adrenaclick, Auvi-Q, EpiPen, Symjepi) for an allergic reaction, always carry two with you and use it as directed.
Medical treatment for bee stings
If you have a single sting with no allergic symptoms, you may require only local wound care such as cleaning and applying antibiotic ointment. Any stingers that remain will be removed. And you may be given an oral antihistamine to treat itching. The doctor may also tell you to use ibuprofen (Motrin) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) for pain. If your tetanus immunization is not current, you’ll receive a booster shot.
With mild allergic symptoms such as a rash and itching over your body but no problems with breathing or other vital signs, you may be treated with an antihistamine. You may also be given steroids. In some cases, the doctor will give you an epinephrine (adrenaline) injection. Treatment may be started at the scene or in the ambulance by the emergency medics. If you are doing well, you may be sent home after observation in the emergency department.
If you have a more moderate allergic reaction such as a rash all over the body and some mild problems breathing, you will likely receive injections of antihistamines, steroids, and epinephrine. Some of these treatments may be started at the scene or in the ambulance by emergency medics. You will likely need to be observed for a prolonged period of time in the emergency department or in some cases be admitted to the hospital.
If you have a severe allergic reaction such as low blood pressure, swelling blocking air getting into the lungs, or other serious problems breathing, you have a true life-threatening emergency. Treatment may include placing a breathing tube into your trachea. You will likely be given injections of antihistamines, steroids, and epinephrine. Intravenous fluids may also be given. Some of these treatments may start at the scene or in the ambulance. You will be closely monitored in the emergency department and likely be admitted to the hospital — perhaps the intensive care unit.
With multiple stings — more than 10-20 — but no evidence of an allergic reaction, you may still need prolonged observation in the emergency department or admission to the hospital. At that point, the doctor may order multiple blood tests.
If you are stung inside the mouth or throat, you may may need to remain in the emergency department for observation, or you may need more intensive management if complications develop.
If you are stung on the eyeball, you will likely need to be evaluated by an eye doctor.
Lifestyle changes & home remedies
What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage bee stings?
The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with bee stings:
- Take care when drinking sweet beverages outside. Wide, open cups may be your best option because you can see if a bee is in them. Inspect cans and straws before drinking from them.
- Tightly cover food containers and trash cans.
- Clear away garbage, fallen fruit, and dog or other animal feces (flies can attract wasps).
- Wear close-toed shoes when walking outside.
- Don’t wear bright colors or floral prints, which can attract bees.
- Don’t wear loose clothing, which can trap bees between the cloth and your skin.
- When driving, keep your windows rolled up.
- Be careful when mowing the lawn or trimming vegetation, activities that might arouse insects in a beehive or wasp nest.
- Have hives and nests near your home removed by a professional.
Know what to do when you’re exposed to bees:
- If a few bees are flying around you, stay calm and slowly walk away from the area.Swatting at an insect may cause it to sting.
- If a bee or wasp stings you, or many insects start to fly around, cover your mouth and nose and quickly leave the area. When a bee stings, it releases a chemical that attracts other bees. If you can, get into a building or closed vehicle.
If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.
Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.
Bee sting. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/bee-stings/home/ovc-20251617. Accessed July 24, 2017.
Treatment of Bee and Wasp Stings. http://www.webmd.com/first-aid/bee-and-wasp-stings-treatment#1. Accessed July 24, 2017.
Review Date: July 24, 2017 | Last Modified: July 24, 2017