Insect Sting Allergy

If you get stung by a bee, wasp, yellow jacket, hornet, or fire ant, would you know if you had an allergic reaction? Understanding differences in symptoms between a normal reaction and an allergic reaction would help in determining symptom management or treatment.

Three types of reactions:

Normal/mild reaction – sets off pain, swelling, and redness around the sting site

Large local reaction – causes swelling and generally larger (for example, a sting on the front of your arm could cause your entire arm to swell)

Serious reaction (also called severe allergic or anaphylactic reaction) – The most severe reaction, which needs immediate medical attention. Symptoms range from mild hives or itching, shock, and airway constriction.

Which insects cause allergic reactions?

There are three families of insects that cause the most allergies:

  • Vespids (Vespidae) : yellow jackets, hornets, wasps
  • Bees (Apidae) : honey bees, bumblebees (occasionally), and sweat bees (infrequent)
  • Ants (Formicidae) : fire ants (commonly cause anaphylaxis)


Mild allergic reactions:

  • Pain
  • Redness
  • Pimple-like spots
  • Mild to moderate swelling
  • Warmth
  • Itching

Severe reactions:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Hives that spread to areas beyond the sting
  • Swelling of the face, throat, or any part of the mouth
  • Wheezing
  • Anxiety
  • Rapid pulse
  • Dizziness


Seeing a doctor, or more specifically, an allergist, is the best way to do if you are concerned that you may have an allergy to insect stings. Your doctor would take a detailed medical history, and will ask you questions about previous stings (if any), how long the reaction lasted, and what did you do to get relief. Your allergist may also perform a skin-prick test, an intradermal skin test, or a blood test.


If you are not allergic to an insect sting, it is fairly easy to get treatment. Here’s what to do if you get stung by an insect:

  • Remove accessories off your fingers immediately.
  • If you were stung by a bee, gently remove the stinger within 30 seconds to avoid getting more of the venom. Do not squeeze the stinger.
  • Wash the area with soap and water then apply antiseptic.
  • With fire ant stings, the localized itchy lump at the sting site usually goes down within 30 to 60 minutes and is followed by a small blister within several hours. To avoid secondary infection, clean the blisters with soap and water.
  • Apply a soothing ointment or cream and cover the area with a dry, sterile bandage.
  • If it is swelling, you can apply an ice pack or cold compress to the area to relieve pain.

Important note: If you’re allergic, or if you have a severe allergic sting reaction, you’ll be needing emergency medical care. Usually, you will be given epinephrine and you will be required to stay overnight at the hospital.

Avoiding insect stings

  1. Learn to recognize the insects that sting and cause allergic reactions. Learn to recognize their nests and avoid them. Stinging insects are most active during late spring, summer, and early fall.
  2. Wear socks and shoes when going outdoors.
  3. Yard work or any outdoor activity should be done with caution. Wear clothing that protects your skin such as long-sleeved shirts, long pants especially when you’re in rural or wooded areas.
  4. Avoid wearing bright-colored clothing and sweet-smelling perfumes, hair sprays, colognes, and deodorants.
  5. Keep your window and door screens in good repair and drive with car windows closed.
  6. Remove insect-attracting plants and vines growing around your home.
  7. If you are severely allergic to insect stings, keep prescribed medications handy at all times and follow the instructions if you are stung. It is also best to wear identification that says you have an allergy.
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