Are You Allergic to Bee Stings?

Bee flying over colorful flower fieldOne of my worst childhood memories came courtesy of my father’s attempt to remove a hornet’s nest from the bush on the side of our house. I managed to come outside at exactly the same time one of the angry insects decided to seek revenge. Instead of finding my father, it found my face and gave me a great big kiss right on the upper lip. In my memory, my lip and head swelled to monstrous proportions. But, my mother assures me it wasn’t that bad for being stung in the lip. And I was all right after a trip to the ice cream shop.

Since that day, I have what many may think is an overreaction to the presence of bees and other stingy insects. In other words, I jump up, scream and run away while proclaiming I will certainly die if stung. Granted, a stinger to the face isn’t pleasant, but does it mean I’m now deathly allergic to bee stings?  

“It’s estimated that 2 percent or less of the population has some sort of sensitivity to stings,” says Virginia Mason allergist David Jeong, MD. “And only 5 percent of all stings actually result in a severe systemic reaction. If people are sensitive, the most common reaction is localized pain, redness and swelling at the site of the sting.”  

Know the Signs of an Allergic Reaction

A life-threatening reaction, anaphylaxis, is when the immune system overreacts to the sting venom. The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology lists the symptoms that point to a dangerous reaction:

  • Swelling of the face, throat or tongue
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Dizziness
  • Stomach cramps
  • Nausea or diarrhea
  • Itchiness and hives over large areas of the body

“Symptoms like these need immediate attention,” says Dr. Jeong. Don’t be afraid to call 911 if someone is having trouble breathing or passed out.  

While my experience with a hornet stinger did give me a fat lip and lots of tears, I didn’t experience a systemic, severe allergic reaction, so it’s safe to say I can stay calm when bees and hornets come around. But wait, won’t I have an even worse reaction now since I had a bad sting in the past?  

“It is a myth that each subsequent sting will bring a worse reaction than the previous one. Ninety percent of the time the reaction you will have with a sting will be similar to what you experienced before,” says Dr. Jeong. “Less than 5 percent of reactions will be more severe than the previous one. Especially if you have never had a problem, it’s unlikely you will have a bad reaction now.”   

Avoid Getting Stung

While I couldn’t help my poor timing as a child, there are a few things you can do to avoid getting stung by pesky wasps, bees or hornets.

  • Don’t bother stinging insects in their homes. Leave the removal of hives to an exterminator. (Got that, Dad?)
  • Don’t get excited when buzzing guests crash your party. Remain calm and slowly move away.
  • Don’t confuse bees by acting like a flower – avoid wearing brightly colored clothing and perfume when outside.
  • Don’t go barefoot. Wearing sensible shoes when out in the yard will help you avoid stepping on a stinging insect.

In addition, Dr. Jeong suggests watching out for the obvious places when spending time outdoors. “Avoid garbage cans and be careful with soda cans, both are popular hiding places for yellow jackets. And wasps tend to be found out along homes and buildings. Be on the lookout for bees and use your common sense to avoid being stung.”   

Stay Calm if You Are Stung

In most cases, stings are easily treated at home even if they are annoying or painful.  

Dr. Jeong recommends putting ice or a cold compress on the site of the sting if you’re developing a localized reaction. “Take an antihistamine and/or an anti-inflammatory like ibuprofen,” he says. “If the reaction becomes bigger, such as increasing redness, swelling or pain, then you should check in with your doctor.” 

And eating some ice cream doesn’t hurt either.  


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