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Handling Insect Allergies: Bee Stings, Fire Ant Bites & Venomous Insect Reactions

December 15th, 2023 | 5 min. read

By Nerissa D'Silva, MD

Insect bite allergies

 

Most people have a fear of insect stings and bites…and for good reason. Stings and bites from bugs and insects can be painful, lead to uncomfortable rashes and allergic reactions, and in some cases, even lead to death. 

But as far as allergies to stings and bites go, it’s far more common to be scared of getting bitten than actually having an allergic reaction. In fact, only .4% to .8% of children and 3% of adults have potentially life-threatening allergic reactions to bites and stings.

 


Schedule an Appointment with Houston ENT  Allergist today!

 


Bee Stings, Fire Ant Bites, and Venomous Insects

Knowing what these insects look like and how stings and bites present on your body can be invaluable in helping you determine what it is and whether you should seek medical attention.

Bees, Wasps, Hornets, and Yellow Jackets

Bees, wasps, hornets, and yellow jacket stings are commonly responsible for allergic reactions. When these insects sting your body, they inject a toxic substance known as venom that causes a reaction.

There is little distinction between a wasp sting and a bee sting. Bee stings look similar to a bad mosquito bite – the area will redden and swell, and the center may be white. But reactions include local reactions, large local reactions, toxic reactions, and allergic/anaphylactic reactions, with local and large local reactions being the most common.

Yellow Jackets

These yellow and black insects are types of wasps and can be bothersome as they search for food around picnics, parks, and trash cans. If you’ve been eating outside (especially in late summer when they’re on the hunt for sweet food and drinks) and noticed persistent black and yellow bee-like flying insects, they were likely yellow jackets.

If you get in their way or provoke them, they may sting you, sometimes multiple more than once.

Hornets

Hornets are possibly the most daunting of the bee-like insects due to their size. They are larger than yellow jackets and their shape more closely resembles a bumble bee, but with a narrower waist.

While they may be frightening, hornets usually won’t sting people unless they’re provoked. However, they may build nests under the eaves of a building or high in a tree. 

Paper Wasps

Paper wasps closely resemble yellow jackets with reddish brown to black coloring ringed with yellow. These insects are known for defending their nests that are commonly built near and on homes or in parks.

Their nests can range from about a dozen paper wasps to up to a hundred, and the nests themselves resemble upside-down umbrellas.

Bees

While we might depend on bees as pollinators and for their honey, they can sting if you’re not careful. Bees are dark brown and appear slightly hairy and fatter than wasps. 

A bee can only sting you once. When it does, it leaves its stinger behind and dies. 

Ants

Fire Ants

Fire ants, also called red ants for their red or orange coloring may also be black in coloring. These ants are known for repeatedly stinging and biting people. They are found all over the world, including the southeastern United States. For those who live up north, you’re in luck, these ants are unable to survive the cold winters.

When fire ants sting you, you’ll experience pain followed by an itching and burning or “fiery” sensation that can last up to one hour.

Australian Jack Jumper Ants

If you live in or visit Australia, you should keep an eye out for the Australian jack jumper ants, which are a major cause of severe allergic reactions in the country. The stings from these ants are very painful and can cause severe allergic reactions or generalized allergic reactions.

Other Venomous Insects

Some other common venomous insects you should look out for include:

  • Brown Recluse Spider – This brown spider common in North America has potent venom that will leave a necrotic sore that should heal within 3 weeks.
  • Scorpions – Scorpions are easy to identify by their pinchers and stinger that hang above their bodies. Scorpion stings can be painful, but they are rarely life-threatening.
  • Centipedes – Centipede bites are rare, they usually leave a small trail of marks on your skin from their pincers that may cause swelling, pain, and blistering.

Bee Stings, Fire Ant Bites, & Venomous Insect Reaction Symptoms

Insect venom allergies are most common among wasp and bee stings but can happen in response to any venomous bite or sting. When someone is stung or bitten by bees, fire ants, or other venomous insects, some kind of reaction, known as a normal or local reaction is common. However, others will have an allergic reaction, which, in some cases, can be life-threatening.

Local Reactions

Symptoms of a local reaction include:

  • Burning pain
  • Sharp pain
  • Redness
  • Swelling

Large Local Reactions

For normal reactions, the pain and swelling should begin to subside within a few hours. About 10% of people will develop a large local reaction after a sting or bite, which results in significant swelling and redness. In cases of a large local reaction, the area may enlarge over 1 or 2 days and subside after 5 or 10 days.

Allergic Reactions

Severe allergic reactions always require medical attention. If you or someone you know is experiencing any of the following symptoms, seek medical assistance immediately:

  • Swelling, itching, hives in the face, eyelids, lips, or throat.
  • Difficulty swallowing and swelling of the tongue or throat.
  • Intense vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, and abdominal cramping.
  • Coughing.
  • Tightness in the chest and throat.
  • Anaphylaxis – a life-threatening allergic reaction that makes it difficult to breathe and results in shock.
  • A weak and rapid pulse.

Treating Insect Bites and Stings

Most common insect bites and stings can be treated at home (if they’re mild and not serious allergic reactions). 

For mild reactions, do the following after an insect bite or sting:

  1. Move yourself and others to a safe place away from the insects.
  2. Remove any stingers by using the back of a knife or a credit card across the stinger. Don’t use tweezers, as doing so could release even more venom into the skin.
  3. Wash the area with soap and water.
  4. To reduce the pain and swelling, apply a cloth with cold water to the area of the sting or bite for 10 to 20 minutes.
  5. If the sting or bite is on an arm or leg, raise it.
  6. Apply baking soda paste, calamine lotion, or .5% or 1% hydrocortisone cream several times a day until the symptoms disappear.
  7. Take over-the-counter antihistamines to reduce itching and an over-the-counter pain reliever to reduce pain.
  8. If conditions get worse, you don’t feel well, there are any signs of infection, or there are signs of an allergic reaction, seek medical attention.

For serious allergic reactions like an anaphylactic reaction, emergency medical treatment may include:

  • Epinephrine
  • Intravenous antihistamines
  • Corticosteroids
  • Breathing support
  • Lab tests

If you’re unsure if you’re allergic to venomous insect bites or stings, a great preventative measure you can take is scheduling an allergy skin test. These tests will determine what (if anything) you are allergic to without putting you into serious discomfort or pain.

Short-Term Vs Long-Term Treatment

EpiPens are used for short-term treatment of venomous insect allergic reactions. For people who are diagnosed with serious allergic reactions to stings or bites from bees, wasps, fire ants, or other venomous insects, EpiPens serve as vital lifelines that can be used immediately after a bite or sting happens in order to prevent anaphylaxis.

Long-term treatment for venomous insect allergies includes allergen-specific immunotherapy which can prevent allergic reactions from happening in the first place by desensitizing individuals to the venoms that cause serious allergic reactions.

When to See an Allergist

If you believe you might have any allergies or allergic reactions – even a mild allergic reaction or a large local reaction – you could benefit from scheduling an appointment to visit an allergist. Allergists can help treat you, help you understand your symptoms, and manage any future symptoms.

Schedule an Appointment at Houston ENT

When it comes to allergies, especially serious ones, the best thing you can do is seek medical assistance from the experts at Houston ENT. We’ll help educate you and offer you emergency medical kits, along with long-term treatments to ensure your peace of mind and safety going forward. So book your appointment with Houston ENT today!