Summer is the season of pool parties, fireworks, s’mores, and less delightfully, stinging insects that can cause a life-threatening reaction in 4 percent of the population.
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If you’re one of the estimated 2 million people in the United States who suffer from severe insect allergies, just setting foot outdoors during the warmer months can be downright terrifying. A sting from a bee, wasp, or hornet can cause your body’s immune system to go into overdrive, triggering an anaphylactic reaction.
Symptoms, which can occur within minutes of the sting, include hives all over the body with severe itching and swelling, tightness in the chest, difficulty breathing, swelling in the tongue and/or throat, dizziness, fainting, stomach cramps, nausea, diarrhea, a drop in blood pressure, and cardiac arrest.
“Your face swells, your lips swell, you feel like you’re going to vomit,” explained Sandra Hong, MD, a Cleveland Clinic specialist in allergy and immunology, in a recent Fox 8 news report. “You might feel like your throat is going to close.
“If you get stung on one spot but have a reaction somewhere else on your body, you need to call 911 to get emergency care.”
Prompt treatment is crucial: Each year, approximately 40 people in this country die of allergic reactions to insect stings.
A minor reaction, which can include swelling in the area where the bite occurred, can be treated by first gently removing the stinger by scraping it with the edge of a credit card or other straight-edged object. Don’t use tweezers—they could squeeze the venom sac and cause more irritation. Wash the area with soap and water and hold ice wrapped in a washcloth on the sting area for 10 minutes, then off for 10 minutes, repeating as needed.
If the itching is particularly bothersome, take an antihistamine like Claritin or Zyrtec or apply a hydrocortisone or steroid cream on the affected area. Be on the lookout for signs of infection—an increase in redness, swelling, or pain—for the next few days.
People who know they have severe allergies, says Hong, need to always carry an EpiPen with them, so if they get stung, they or someone with them can immediately administer an injection of symptom-relieving epinephrine. After the injection, the person should head immediately to the nearest emergency room for treatment.
Dr. Hong also recommended that people with severe insect allergies undergo skin testing and if positive, consider undertaking a long-term series of shots to desensitize them against venoms they are allergic to.
“Typically, it’s once-a-week injections for about four months,” she said. “If you’re a beekeeper or you work outdoors and need to rush it, we can complete that quicker.” After that first round, shots taper off to once a month for about five years.
It’s a big commitment, said Dr. Hong, “but at the end of that period, you don’t have to go outside and worry that you’re going to have a life-threatening allergic reaction. I think that’s huge.”