How to treat a bee sting, and what to do if you have an allergic reaction
- To treat a bee sting, you should wash the area with soap and water, apply ice or a cold compress to reduce swelling or pain, and use topical anti-itch cream to soothe your skin.
- In some cases, you will also need to remove the stinger from your skin.
- If you have a severe allergic reaction to a bee sting, you may need to seek medical attention.
- This article was medically reviewed by Jason R McKnight, MD, MS, a family medicine physician and clinical assistant professor at Texas A&M College of Medicine.
- For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.
Bee stings are one of the most annoying parts of summer. But in most cases, they're easy to treat at home.
If you get stung by a bee, a normal reaction can include redness, swelling, and pain near the wound. These symptoms should subside within a few hours, and you can use ice, anti-itch cream, and Advil or Tylenol to help relieve them sooner.
But if you have an allergic reaction to a bee sting, you may want to seek medical attention. Here's what you should know to treat your bee sting.
How to treat a bee sting
Bee stings are typically more of a nuisance than they are dangerous. Most people have a mild reaction that doesn't last longer than a few hours.
If you experience a normal, localised reaction, you should be able to effectively treat your bee sting at home, says David Cutler, MD, family medicine physician at Providence Saint John's Health Center.
First, it's important to immediately remove the stinger from your skin, if it's still there. You'll see a small black dot at the sting site, if so.
Some types of bees - like honey bees - have barbed stingers that remain in your skin. Other types - like carpenter bees, or venomous insects like wasps - have smooth stingers that stay attached to the insect, and they can sting you multiple times before flying away.
You won't need to remove a stinger if you're stung by a wasp, hornet, or carpenter bee. But if a honey bee stings you and the stinger remains in your skin, it can continue to pump toxins into your body, which will make symptoms worse if it's not removed.
Here's how to remove the stinger:
1. Use a scraping motion with a flat, blunt object like a credit card across the affected area to remove the stinger.
2. Don't try to pull the stinger out with tweezers or your fingers - this could result in even more venom squeezing into the skin.
3. Once the stinger is removed, wash the site with soap and water.
After you remove the stinger, you can use a few remedies to treat the pain, itchiness, and swelling that can accompany a bee sting:
- Apply ice or a cold compress at the sting site for about 20 minutes every hour to ease pain and reduce swelling. You should wrap the ice in a cloth or towel to protect your skin.
- Use hydrocortisone cream or calamine lotion to help reduce itchiness at the site.
- An over-the-counter antihistamine like Zyrtec or Claritin can also reduce itchiness.
- Pain relievers like Advil (ibuprofen) or Tylenol (acetaminophen) can help reduce pain, swelling, and general discomfort.
- Spray or creams that contain an anesthetic, like Solarcaine, can also help ease pain or itchiness. These are widely available over-the-counter.
Other natural remedies like applying honey, baking soda, or apple cider vinegar to the sting site might help some people, Cutler says, but there's not much scientific evidence that these treatment methods are effective.
What to do if you have an allergic reaction
About 5% to 7.5% of Americans will experience an allergic reaction to an insect sting at some points in their lives, according to the Journal of Asthma and Allergy.
Signs of an allergic reaction from a bee sting include:
- Excessive itchiness that persists past a few hours
- Swelling in other areas of your body, in addition to the sting site
- Abdominal cramping
According to Cutler, most allergic reactions are mild or moderate, and can still be treated at home with antihistamines and ice. But some allergic reactions are more severe.
In fact, about 3% of adults who experience insect stings develop a life-threatening allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis, which does require immediate medical attention. It's estimated that 90 to 100 Americans die every year due to anaphylaxis from an insect sting.
Signs of anaphylaxis can occur within minutes of a sting and include:
- Trouble breathing
- Chest tightness
- Swelling of tongue or throat
- Difficulty swallowing
In the case of anaphylaxis, you must be treated with an adrenaline injection, known as epinephrine. This counteracts the hormones your body releases in response to the sting and prevents your body from going into shock, Cutler says.
If you've had a mild or moderate allergic reaction to an insect sting before, you should discuss this with your doctor, as this may increase your risk for anaphylaxis in the future. Those at risk can get a prescription for an epi-pen, which allows you to administer epinephrine yourself if you have a severe reaction.
When to see a doctor
Most of the time, you should be able to treat your bee sting at home. However, it is still important to monitor symptoms and seek medical attention immediately if you experience any signs of anaphylaxis, like difficulty breathing or lightheadedness.
And if you do experience a moderate allergic reaction to a bee sting, you should discuss it with your doctor afterwards, because you could be at a higher risk of having a more severe reaction if stung again.
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