Bees, wasps and hornets have their place in nature but it’s not on your skin. UR Medicine Urgent Care’s Dr. Michael Kamali offers advice to help take the sting out of a close encounter with a buzzing bug.
As we welcome fall, we commonly see more bees and, consequently, an increase in bee stings. Quick action after a bee sting may help alleviate some pain and discomfort and, in extreme cases of allergic reaction, can even save a life.
When you’re stung, venom gets into your skin through the insect’s stinger. The stingers of some bugs—like wasps, yellow jackets and hornets—are retractable and stay with the bee. Others, like the honey bee, leave their stinger in your skin. It helps to know the difference since you’ll want to remove the stinger if it’s there.
For most people, a bee sting prompts an allergic reaction that results in redness, pain, swelling and itching that subsides within a day or so. Some have a larger reaction with symptoms lasting a week. A small percentage of people will have a severe, life-threatening reaction and need immediate medical attention.
Here are steps to take following a bee sting:
If the person has any of these severe allergy symptoms, call 911 and get immediate medical help:
- Difficulty breathing
- Feelings of faintness or dizziness
- A swollen tongue
- A history of severe allergy reaction to insect stings
If the person has a history of severe allergy (known as anaphylaxis), and they have injectable epinephrine for emergency treatment, don’t wait for the reaction to become severe. Follow instructions carefully to give the injection and get medical help right away.
If the person does not have severe allergy symptoms:
- Get the stinger out. Check for a stinger and remove it by scraping the area with a straight-edge object, like a credit card. Don't use tweezers; pinching the stinger can inject more venom.
- Clean the bite site. Cleanse the area with soap and water and apply hydrocortisone cream, which may help keep the reaction at bay. As alternatives, you can apply a homemade paste of baking soda and water, or unseasoned meat tenderizer and water.
- Keep swelling in check. Apply ice to the affected area and if the sting is on an arm or leg, elevate it. Remove any jewelry near the area since swelling may make it hard to take off later. If a person is stung in the mouth or nose, swelling may affect their breathing so seek medical attention even if they don’t have an allergy to bee stings.
- Ease symptoms. Treat pain with an OTC pain reliever like acetaminophen or ibuprofen. (Do not give aspirin to anyone under age 19.) An antihistamine like diphenhydramine (Benadryl) can help relieve itchiness. Topical treatments like calamine lotion may help too.
- Keep watch. If symptoms don’t improve after several days or the area becomes red or warm, the site may be infected. Seek medical help.
Michael Kamali, M.D., is chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at URMC. UR Medicine Urgent Care has convenient locations in Pittsford, Penfield, Henrietta, Greece, Spencerport, Farmington and Newark.