Insect Sting Allergies
When most people are stung by an insect, the site develops redness, swelling and itching. However, some people are allergic to insect stings; meaning that their immune systems overreact to the venom. If you are allergic to an insect, your body produces antibodies called Immunoglobulin E (IgE) the first time you are stung. If you are stung again by the same type of insect, the venom interacts with the IgE antibody and triggers the release of substances that cause an allergic reaction.
For some people with a venom allergy, stings may be life-threatening and they will have a reaction called anaphylaxis. Symptoms may include two or more of the following: itching and hives, swelling in the throat or tongue, difficulty breathing, dizziness, stomach cramps, nausea or diarrhea; and in severe cases, a quick drop in blood pressure may result in shock and loss of consciousness. Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency and can be fatal. If you or someone else has these symptoms after an insect sting, seek emergency medical treatment immediately. After treatment, you or the other person should see an allergist to learn how to stay safe in the future.
There are many insects that can cause an allergic reaction. If you know you are allergic to an insect, it is important to know how to identify it in order to avoid another sting.
Yellow Jackets’ nests are made of a paper-maché material and are usually located underground, but can sometimes be found in the walls of frame buildings, cracks in masonry or woodpiles. Although their yellow and black stripes are similar to those of bees, yellow jackets are wasps. They have smoother and thinner bodies and are equipped with a lance-like stinger with small barbs that are capable of delivering multiple stings. Yellow jackets are predatory, scavengers of human food and may sting at the slightest provocation. Activities associated with their stings are picnics and proximity to trash cans.
Honeybees and Bumblebees
Honeybees and bumblebees are non-aggressive and will only sting when provoked. However, Africanized honey bees (AKA “killer bees”) found in the Southwestern U.S. are more aggressive and may sting in swarms. Domesticated honeybees live in man-made hives, while wild honeybees live in colonies or “honeycombs” in hollow trees or cavities of buildings. Bumblebees have a fat and furry appearance and are able to sting more than once. Honeybees have a smaller and slimmer appearance like a wasp and die after they have stung. Activities associated with their stings are beekeeping, walking barefoot in grass and other outdoor activities.
Paper wasps’ nests are usually made of a paper-like material that forms a circular comb of cells which opens downward. The nests are often located under eaves, behind shutters, or in shrubs or woodpiles. Their bodies are narrow and usually dark brown in color with black wings and yellow markings. Some may even appear similar to yellow jackets in coloration. Activities associated with their stings are trimming shrubbery and painting outdoors.
Hornets are usually larger than yellow jackets. Their nests are gray or brown, football-shaped and made of a paper material similar to that of yellow jackets’ nests. Hornets’ nests are usually found high above ground on branches of trees, in shrubbery, on gables or in tree hollows. To identify a hornet, look for a thin waist between the thorax and abdomen, black and white coloring, wings folded down the length of their bodies and a wider head behind the eyes. They also have barbless stingers, allowing them to sting repeatedly without losing their stingers. An activity associated with their stings is yardwork.
Imported fire ants build nests of dirt in the ground that may be quite tall (18 inches) in the right kinds of soil. These ants are red and black in color and have an abdominal stinger. Activities associated with their stings include walking barefoot outside and sitting on the ground.
To prevent stings, stay away from insects as best you can. These insects are most likely to sting if their homes are disturbed so it is important to have nests around your home destroyed. If flying insects are close by, remain calm and move away slowly. Avoid wearing brightly colored clothing and perfume when you are going outdoors. The smell of food attracts insects, so be especially careful outdoors when cooking, eating or drinking sweet drinks like soda or juice. Beware of insects inside straws or canned drinks and keep food covered until you are ready to eat. Wear closed-toed shoes outdoors and avoid wearing loose-fitting garments that can trap insects between material and skin.
If you are stung, it is important to treat your wound quickly. If the insect left its stinger in your skin, remove the stinger within 30 seconds to avoid receiving more venom. A quick scrape with your fingernail will remove the stinger and sack. Do not squeeze the sack as this will force more venom through the stinger and into your skin.
If you know you have a severe insect allergy, carry auto-injectable epinephrine. Remember that epinephrine is a rescue medication only and you still need to go to an emergency room immediately if you are stung.
Raise the affected limb and apply a cold compress to reduce swelling and pain. Gently clean the area with soap and water to prevent secondary infections but do not break blisters. Use a topical steroid ointment or oral antihistamine to relieve itching. See your doctor if swelling does not go down or if you think the sting site is infected.
Did you know that venom immunotherapy is available for stinging and flying insects?
The immunotherapy changes the immune response in patients allergic to venom and decreases the risk of a future systemic reaction after being stung. Contact us or schedule an appointment to learn more.