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Six Steps to Ease the Pain of Bee Stings

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Getting a bee sting is no fun. For such a small insect, the pain of a sting can linger for days. Fortunately, although it can hurt, most people only suffer a mild reaction to the sting and heal completely within a few days.

“Bees will sting when aggravated or their nest is bothered. This time of year, yellow jacket encounters are more common, especially when people are picnicking outside,” said Lee Ann Wetzel, PA-C, from SamCare Express in Albany.

Which Bees Are Most Aggressive?

Honeybees and bumblebees generally only sting when provoked. After one sting, these smaller, hairier insects die. The more aggressive yellow jacket wasps that are common in our area have larger and smoother bodies than bees. They can sting many times and don’t die afterward, meaning you could be subject to several uncomfortable welts before it’s over. 

Toward the end of summer when their diet of small insects is harder to find, yellow jackets can be found around your garbage can or fallen fruit, at picnics and even inside soda cans looking for meat and sugary substances to eat. These hungry bugs want to defend their food and are more willing to sting to protect it. A yellow jacket will chase intruders for several hundred feet before returning to the food, so leave the area quickly if you are being stung.

“A quick flick to dislodge the wasp is preferred over swatting or crushing it, as that can release pheromones that call other yellow jackets to the area,” said Wetzel. “A mild or moderate reaction like pain or swelling at a sting site or on the affected limb is normal and should get better within a week.”

While there’s no magic cure to take away the pain of a sting, these tips can help you make the best of it.

What To Do After a Sting

  1. If there’s a stinger in the wound, remove it quickly within a few seconds if possible. Scraping the stinger out rather than squeezing or pulling it out may reduce the amount of venom that is injected. However, it is more important to remove the stinger quickly than to be overly focused on technique. A quick scrape with your fingernail is usually sufficient.
  2. Wash the area with soap and water to remove residual venom and reduce the chance of infection.
  3. Apply an ice pack for at least 20 minutes to control pain and swelling.
  4. Apply a thin layer of hydrocortisone cream or calamine lotion to help with pain and itching, and cover with a bandage. Wetzel notes that home remedies such as baking soda paste, honey or meat tenderizer are not scientifically proven but won’t hurt if you’d like to try it.
  5. Take an oral antihistamine like Benadryl as soon as possible to help control itching and swelling.
  6. Watch for signs of a serious reaction.

Severe Allergic Reactions

A severe allergic reaction called anaphylaxis can be life threatening and should be treated immediately at the emergency department. Research published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that adults are more likely to have a serious reaction than children. The study also found that one sting was just as likely to result in a severe reaction as several at the same time, although a yellow jacket sting was more likely to stimulate a severe reaction than a honeybee sting. Reactions will usually occur within an hour of the sting, although very rarely a reaction may occur up to 48 hours later. Wetzel notes that only about 3 percent of the population experiences anaphylaxis after an insect sting, but if you’ve had it before there is about a 60 percent chance you’ll have it with a future sting.

Signs of Anaphylaxis

  • Hives
  • Swelling of the throat, lips or tongue
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Feeling light headed or dizzy
  • Nausea
  • Rapid heart rate

Call 911 immediately if you or someone you are with experiences these symptoms after a bee sting.

If you have been prescribed emergency injectable epinephrine like an EpiPen, use it as soon as you notice a reaction. This medication will improve dangerous symptoms like difficulty breathing and low blood pressure. Even if you feel better after using the epinephrine you will still need to go to the emergency department for evaluation as symptoms can return after the medication wears off. Be sure and tell the medical team what time you took the medicine and your dosage.

Need care right away? Schedule online or walk-in at SamCare Express in Albany and Corvallis.