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Insect Stings

The danger of insect stings

The two greatest risks from most insect stings are allergic reaction (which can be fatal in some people) and infection (more common and less serious).

Bees, wasps, yellow jackets, and hornets belong to a class of insects called Hymenoptera. Most insect stings cause only minor discomfort. Stings can occur anywhere on the body and can be painful and frightening. Most stings are from honey bees or yellow jackets. Fire ants, usually found in southern states, can sting multiple times. The sites of the stings are more likely to become infected.

What are the symptoms of an insect sting?

The following are the most common symptoms of insect stings. However, each person may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Local reactions at the site, including:

    • Pain

    • Swelling

    • Redness

    • Itching

    • Warmth

    • Hives

  • Serious symptoms that indicate the possibly of a life-threatening allergic reaction, include:

    • Coughing

    • Tickling in the throat

    • Tightness in the throat or chest

    • Breathing problems or wheezing

    • Nausea or vomiting

    • Dizziness or fainting

    • Sweating

    • Anxiety

    • Hives over a large part of the body

What is the treatment for insect stings?

Large, local reactions do not usually lead to more serious generalized reactions. However, they can be life-threatening if the sting occurs in the mouth, nose, or throat area. Swelling in these areas can cause breathing difficulties.

Treatment for local skin reactions may include the following:

  • Remove the stinger by gently scraping across the site with a blunt-edged object, such as a credit card, a dull knife, or a fingernail. Do not try to pull it out, as this may release more venom.

  • Wash the area well with soap and water.

  • Apply a cold or ice pack wrapped in a thin cloth to help reduce swelling and pain (10 minutes on and 10 minutes off for a total of 30 to 60 minutes).

  • If the sting occurs on an arm or leg, keep the arm or leg raised to help reduce swelling.

  • To help reduce the pain and itching, consider the following:

    • Apply a paste of baking soda and water and leave it on for 15 to 20 minutes.

    • Apply a paste of nonseasoned meat tenderizer and water and leave it on for 15 to 20 minutes.

    • Apply a wet tea bag and leave it on for 15 to 20 minutes.

    • Use an over-the-counter product made for insect stings.

    • Apply an antihistamine or corticosteroid cream or calamine lotion.

    • Give acetaminophen for pain.

    • Give an over-the-counter antihistamine, if approved by your health care provider.

    • Watch the person closely for the next hour for more serious symptoms.

Call 911 or your local emergency medical service (EMS) for immediate care if the sting was in the mouth, nose, or throat area, or if any other serious symptoms occur.

Emergency medical treatment may include the following:

  • Intravenous (IV) antihistamines

  • Epinephrine

  • Corticosteroids or other medications

  • Lab tests

  • Breathing support

Preventing insect stings

To reduce the possibility of insect stings while outdoors, try the following:

  • Avoid using perfumes, hair products, and other scented items.

  • Avoid brightly colored clothing.

  • Do not go outside barefoot. Avoid wearing sandals in the grass.

  • Use insect repellent.

  • Avoid locations where hives and nests are present. Have the nests removed by professionals.

  • If an insect comes near, stay calm and walk away slowly.

If you have a known or suspected allergy to stings, you should:

  • Carry a bee sting kit (such as EpiPen) at all times and know how to use it. These products are available by prescription.

  • Wear a medical alert bracelet or necklace with your allergy information.

  • Wear long-sleeve shirts and long pants when outdoors.

  • Talk with your health care provider about seeing an allergist for allergy testing and treatment.

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