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Avoiding and treating insect stings
Learn how to avoid insects that sting, treat yourself if you do get stung and recognize a dangerous reaction.
What do your perfume, picnic lunch and bright orange shirt have in common?
They could be inviting trouble your way. Each of these items can attract stinging insects to you as the insects search for food.
And those insects can be hard to avoid. You've probably had close encounters with stinging insects around your home and outdoors. And you may even have experienced the pain of one or more stings. If you have, you're not alone—more than 500,000 people go to emergency rooms each year because of insect stings, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI).
But there are ways you can reduce your risk of being bugged by insect stings—and possible allergic reactions to those stings.
The prime pests
All kinds of insects are around, especially in summer and early fall. To help reduce your risk of being stung, it helps if you recognize the insects that sting people the most. They include:
Yellow jackets. These black and yellow insects usually build their papier-mâché-like nests underground. They may also make nests in woodpiles or the walls of frame buildings.
Honeybees are dark brown with yellow markings and look almost fuzzy. They make their honeycomb homes in hollow trees or holes in buildings. Africanized, or "killer," honeybees will live in just about any spot that is protected from the weather, including inside old tires, in holes in the ground and between fence posts.
Paper wasps. Their long, narrow bodies may be black, brown or red and have yellow markings. They build hanging nests, frequently under the eaves of a home, in a bush or in piles of wood.
Hornets may be black or brown and can have markings that vary from white to orange and yellow. Their papery nests are usually high up in a tree or house gables.
Fire ants. These relatives of bees and wasps are reddish-brown in color. They build large mounds to live in.
Honeybees leave their stinger in your skin the first time they sting you, while the others may be able to sting you multiple times. Africanized honeybees can be very aggressive and may attack in a swarm.
Avoiding the sting
You may encounter stinging insects as you try to enjoy the summer sun, mow your lawn or have a backyard barbecue. They often fly around in search of nectar and are attracted to bright colors, perfume and the smell of food.
These insects are also very protective of their homes and the surrounding area. They may see you as a threat, even if you're just passing by, and try to chase you away.
Try these tips from the ACAAI and the American Academy of Asthma, Allergy and Immunology (AAAAI) to keep you and your family safe from stings:
- Don't disturb the homes of stinging insects. Have any nests near your house removed by a professional exterminator.
- Don't look like a flower. Avoid brightly colored clothing and don't wear perfume.
- Use caution anytime you eat or drink outdoors. Don't drink from an open soda can, which insects may crawl into. Instead, pour soda into a glass. And keep food covered until you are ready to eat.
- Stay calm and quiet during an encounter. If a stinging insect flies in your area, don't swat at it. Wait for it to go away.
- Wear closed-toe shoes or avoid going barefoot when outdoors.
- Keep garbage cans tightly covered so the smells don't attract insects.
No matter how careful you are, there are no guarantees that you won't get stung sometime. And if you do, you may have mild symptoms, such as redness, swelling, itching and pain.
Mild stings can be easily dealt with. According to the AAAAI, you should:
- Remove the stinger if it is still in your skin. Use a fingernail to scrape it away. Don't grasp it to pull it out. You may accidentally squeeze the venom sac that is attached to the stinger and push more venom into your skin.
- Elevate the part of the body that was stung and use ice to relieve pain and swelling.
- Relieve itching with an ointment or an antihistamine.
- Avoid infection by cleaning the sting with soap and water.
Talk to a doctor if there is ongoing swelling or if the sting site becomes infected.
Insect sting allergies
Aside from the pain, a first sting usually won't cause a severe allergic reaction. However, your body will react to the venomous sting by making antibodies. Those antibodies can later cause problems for some people if they are stung again by the same type of insect or one that is similar. The antibodies may react with the venom from the second sting and set off a severe allergic reaction. In some cases, it can even lead to a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction called anaphylaxis.
When to get help
Signs of a severe allergic reaction include:
- Itching and hives over large parts of the body.
- Trouble breathing.
- Feeling nauseated or having stomach cramps or diarrhea.
- Loss of consciousness.
If you have had a major allergic reaction in the past, talk to your doctor. You may need to carry injectable medication, epinephrine, for emergencies. Common brand names include Epi-Pen and Adrenaclick. Then, if you are stung, you can immediately take a shot of epinephrine to help stop or lessen the reaction. Even if you take the shot, you still need to seek medical treatment right away.
Many severely allergic people can be helped by a treatment called venom immunotherapy. With this therapy, a doctor will gradually expose you to the venom you are allergic to. Over time—probably a few weeks or months—you may build up a tolerance to the venom.