Buzz Off! What to Do When You Get Stung

by Christine Haran

They fly around parks and playgrounds, disrupting picnics and baseball games with a low drone and painful sting. Bees are troublesome creatures with a bite worse than their buzz, and for those who are allergic to bee stings, what would be a minor annoyance can turn out deadly.

Allergic Reactions

After a sting, it is important to get the stinger out of your skin as soon as possible. A bee's stinger is covered with tiny barbs, which cause it to break off and stick mercilessly into your skin. At the top of the stinger is a sac filled with venom. Don.t squeeze it because the liquid venom inside will seep into your skin, worsening the reaction. One way to remove the stinger without disturbing this sac is to use the edge of a credit card to scrape the stinger out of the skin.

Swelling and redness is a common side effect at the site of a sting -- a reaction typically abated with an over-the-counter antihistamine. Wash the site of the sting with soap and water and apply ice to reduce swelling. An over-the-counter pain reliever can help, too. However, a severe allergy to bee venom may not appear after the first sting, as it could take several stings to trigger an allergic reaction.

If you do become allergic to bee stings, you will notice symptoms such as swelling and itchiness around your eyes and a cough. This could progress into wheezing and hives and, without intervention, anaphylactic shock.

Anaphylactic shock occurs when the body responds to a foreign substance, here the bee venom, by making immunoglobulin E (IgE). This molecule, which is meant to fight off the invader, releases a chemical called histamine, which causes blood vessels to relax and airways to narrow.

In severe cases, these changes can cause a person to have difficulty breathing, anxiety, low blood pressure, weakness and even loss of consciousness. Such extreme reactions require immediate medical help.

Those with a known allergy to bee stings will probably carry a kit containing an EpiPen and antihistamines. The EpiPen is a dose of epinephrine that can be self-injected to reduce the inflammatory response and make it easier to breathe. It should be administered at the first signs of an allergic reaction because the dangers can progress rapidly.

Avoiding the Danger

For severe allergies, or in the case of someone who is constantly in bee-ridden areas, it may be worthwhile to be desensitized to the venom. An allergist can administer increasing doses of bee venom over the course of several weeks until the body develops immunity and can tolerate a large dose of the venom. In one study published in 2000 in Clinical Therapy, this immunotherapy regimen was shown to be effective in up to 79 percent of people.

Allergies to a bee sting can be severe, so if you know that you are allergic to bee venom, it is recommended that you wear some sort of identification, such as a MedicAlert band. This will help to make sure you get the immediate help you need.

Steering Clear of Bees

Avoiding bees entirely would obviously be the best bet for preventing serious allergic reactions, but these creatures can easily fly through open windows and into your house or car. So, if you want to steer clear of a yellow jacket, a honeybee or some other yellow-and-black beast, here's what experts suggest you can do to prevent a sting:

  • Stay away from hives, garbage bins and fruit trees, where bees are typically found
  • When eating outdoors, keep food covered and clean up well afterward
  • Do not wear bright-colored clothing or floral patterns, which can attract bees
  • Avoid wearing scented lotions, colognes, perfumes, hair spray or deodorant
  • Cover-up as much as possible, avoiding loose clothing that can trap insects inside
  • Keep shoes on so an almost-stepped-on bee doesn't sting your foot

If you see a bee, do not run or swat at it; any sudden movements can make the bee feel endangered and trigger an attack. Simply back away slowly and the bee will lose interest and fly back to its hive.

Christine Haran has been a health journalist for more than seven years, and her work has appeared in Woman's Day, MAMM Magazine, Bride's Magazine, Publishers Weekly and other publications. In 2003, she received an Excellence in Women's Health Research Journalism Award from the Society for Women's Health Research. Haran has a master's degree in journalism from New York University and a bachelor's degree in english from Skidmore College.

Copyright © Christine Haran. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.