HCA Virginia - April 02, 2020

Ouch! How to Avoid Insect Sting Allergies

Summer nights and mosquito bites go hand in hand. Unfortunately, some of us seem to be a magnet for these annoying insects that leave us with irritating, itchy welts.

Bites from more foreboding insects, such as bees, wasps and hornets, can lead to severe reactions. They can be fatal in the most serious cases. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, potentially life-threatening allergic reactions occur in 0.4% – 0.8% of children and 3% of adults.

Between 90 and 100 deaths per year occur from insect sting anaphylaxis, a condition that impairs breathing and can cause the body to go into shock. Latex, food allergies and medications can also cause anaphylaxis.

What’s to blame?

The insects most likely to blame when a sting leads to allergic reactions are:

  • Yellow Jackets: Yellow with black bands, yellow jackets are territorial and become aggressive when their nests, made of a paper-maché material, are disturbed. They live in walls, cracks in masonry or woodpiles.
  • Honeybees and bumblebees: Plumper and fuzzier than a wasp, bees aren’t aggressive and only sting when provoked. They live in "honeycombs" in hollow trees or cavities of buildings.
  • Paper wasps: Mostly black or brown with yellow markings, paper wasp nests are made of paper-like material and often located under eaves, behind shutters and in shrubs or woodpiles.
  • Hornets: Larger than yellow jackets but similar in appearance, hornets’ hives are also made of paper-like material. They typically live high above the ground on branches of trees, in shrubbery, on gables or in tree hollows.
  • Fire Ants: For their tiny size, these stinging ants can unleash quite a punch. Often people don’t realize that they are stepping on an anthill until it’s too late.

Symptoms of serious allergic reactions

For most people, an insect sting leaves a painful, itchy, red swollen bump.

For those with serious allergies, the first sting may not be a problem. However, the body produces antibodies called immunoglobulin E (IgE). If you’re stung again by the same type of insect, the venom interacts with the IgE antibody, setting off the allergic reaction.

The worst reactions cause anaphylaxis. Symptoms set in quickly and progress rapidly. Early symptoms can be as mild as a runny nose, a rash, itching or hives. When symptoms progress, they include:

  • Swollen lips, tongue or throat
  • Difficulty breathing, wheezing
  • Dizziness and/or fainting
  • Stomach pain, vomiting, bloating or diarrhea
  • Feeling like something awful is about to happen

In severe cases, a rapid fall in blood pressure may result in shock and loss of consciousness.

Avoid allergic reactions to insect stings

If you’re stung, scraping the stinger with a nail or credit card within 30 seconds helps you avoid receiving more venom. Don’t squeeze the sac, or more venom can be released.

Insect repellant doesn’t work against stinging insects, but you can take these steps to avoid stinging insects:

  • Don’t walk barefoot in the grass.
  • Don’t swat flying insects. Gently brush it aside and wait for it to leave.
  • Don’t drink from an open beverage can where stinging insects can hide.
  • Keep outdoor food covered and trash sealed.
  • Avoid sweet-smelling perfumes, lotions, hair spray or deodorant.
  • Wear shoes, socks and work gloves when doing yard work.
  • Work with a professional pest service to remove nests.

For people who develop these serious reactions, doctors will prescribe an EpiPen to carry at all times. The “pens” allow the person to self-inject epinephrine, a chemical that narrows blood vessels and opens airways in the lungs. The medication can reverse severe low blood pressure, wheezing, severe itching, hives and other symptoms of an allergic reaction.

Sneaky stinging insects can creep into our lives, but we can take steps to avoid the consequences and still enjoy our time outdoors.


American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology

American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology

Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America

Pest World