Simple Steps to Prevent (and Treat) Bee and Wasp Stings

Should you run away or hold still? Plus tips for avoiding stings
bee hornet sting prevention

Nothing ruins an outdoor barbecue faster than the shout of “Bee!!” followed by people screaming and running for cover. And if you’ve ever been stung by a bee or wasp, you know there’s good reason to protect yourself from those buggers. But how can you do that without giving up outdoor fun like barbecues, picnics and camping trips?

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Emergency medicine specialist Baruch Fertel, MD, talks with us about how to deal with bees and wasps. Read on to learn how to prevent insect stings and what to do if you get stung.

How to avoid getting stung by bees and wasps

“Stinging insects are part of the ecosystem — there’s no way you can make them really go away,” says Dr. Fertel. “But you can take steps to make sure you’re not attracting them to you.”

Ways you can protect yourself from insect stings include:

1. Don’t keep food around

The top culprit that brings all the bees to your yard is food. And it’s not just dessert they’re after — they also eat protein (looking at you, fried chicken). To keep bugs away:

  • Cover food that’s sitting outside.
  • Clean up all dirty dishes.
  • Remove food as soon as you’re done eating.

2. Avoid smelling like a flower

Flowery or fruity scented products like lotions, perfumes and hair care attract insects who are searching for their next bit of nectar.

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3. Rethink your outfit

Your clothing is your last line of defense against stinging insects. Wear long sleeves, pants and closed-toed shoes to keep bugs from landing on your skin.

Bright colors may also create buzz among bees and wasps. Red is safe since bees don’t see the color. But bees do notice the rest of the rainbow and are especially drawn to purple, violet and blue.

4. Don’t panic around bees and wasps

Waving your arms and causing a big ruckus won’t help, says Dr. Fertel. And the commotion could increase the risk of getting stung. Instead, hold still and wait until the insect goes away.

5. Carry an epinephrine auto injector, if needed

And if you have a severe allergy to insect stings, keep a prescribed epinephrine autoinjector EpiPen® on you at all times, Dr. Fertel advises, especially when outdoors.

How to care for insect stings

Sometimes, even when you do everything right, you can still get stung. Take these steps immediately following an insect sting:

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  1. Remove the stinger quickly (if there’s one left behind in your skin). This stops the remaining toxin from being injected.
  2. Apply ice in a bag or towel (or use a bag of frozen produce) to reduce pain and swelling.
  3. Elevate the area if it’s on an arm or leg to reduce swelling.
  4. Take an antihistamine for severe swelling or itching.
  5. Consider a pain reliever like ibuprofen to reduce discomfort.

You may have heard that you should swipe the stinger out with a credit card or your fingernail rather than pinching and pulling it out. But, says Dr. Fertel, there’s no evidence that the technique makes a difference. What does matter is how quickly you remove the stinger. So don’t stress about how it’s done — just get it over with fast.

Redness and swelling at the site of the sting is a normal reaction and will subside over time, usually in one to two days, says Dr. Fertel.  

When to see a doctor

For some people, a sting can cause anaphylaxis, a severe, life-threatening allergic reaction throughout your body. Anyone could experience anaphylaxis, but those with allergies and asthma are at higher risk.

If you or someone nearby starts showing symptoms of anaphylaxis, go to a doctor or call 911. Anaphylaxis is an emergency. It includes these symptoms in response to an insect sting:

  • Hives or rash.
  • Chest tightness.
  • Difficulty swallowing.
  • Wheezing or trouble breathing.
  • Stomach cramps, vomiting or diarrhea.
  • Fainting.

But for most people, an insect sting is a temporary, treatable discomfort. By following some simple guidelines outdoors, you can usually prevent bee and wasp stings. And if you want to be truly safe when you host your next patio party — set up the buffet inside.

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