Bee stings are at least painful and can be deadly, depending on if the victim is allergic to the bee venom. The best way to reduce any reaction to bee venom is to remove the bee stinger as quickly as possible. If a bee sting victim has had any allergic reactions to bee stings in the past, consider the possibility of anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction.
Hornets and wasps are related to bees and their venom often causes anaphylaxis in people allergic to bee venom. Treatment of hornet and wasp stings is the same as for bees, except that hornets and wasps don’t leave their stingers behind and each insect can sting multiple times.
Treating a Bee Sting
Safety first! Get away from the bee. Bees release a scent when in danger to attract other bees. If you’re still around when reinforcements get there, they’ll sting you.
Remove any stingers immediately! No need to scrape off bee stingers, just remove them. It’s OK to pull stingers out with your fingers, brush them off or get them out any way you can. The longer bee stingers are allowed to remain in the body, the more severe the reaction will be.
If the victim is allergic to bees, check to see if the victim is carrying an epinephrine auto-injector (EpiPen). If so, help the victim use the EpiPen. If the victim is supposed to carry an EpiPen and does not have it, call 911 immediately! Do not wait for symptoms to appear.
Watch any victim closely for signs of anaphylaxis.
hives (raised welts)
shortness of breath
If there is any concern that the victim may be developing anaphylaxis, call 911 immediately. Antihistamines, such as diphenhydramine (Benedryl), can slow an anaphylactic reaction, but will not stop it.
Non-allergic victims will almost always develop local reactions to bee stings. Redness, swelling, and pain are all common at the site of the bee sting. The pain will usually go away pretty quickly, but swelling may last for more than a day. Use an ice pack to reduce swelling at the site.
It’s common to develop some itching at the bee sting site. Antihistamines or calamine lotion should help.
Take the victim to the emergency department if the victim was stung more than 10 times, or if there are bee stings inside the nose, mouth, or throat. Swelling from these stings can cause shortness of breath, even in non-allergic victims.
Use ibuprofen or acetaminophen for minor pain relief. For tenderness at the site, try a bee-sting swab to dull the pain.
You can also use an ice pack to help with swelling. Put a cloth towel between the ice and the skin and do not let the ice stay on the skin for longer than 20 minutes. Letting ice sit directly on the skin or keeping ice on too long can result in frostbite from the ice pack.
Conventional wisdom says to scrape bee stingers away from the skin because pinching the venom sack could push extra venom into the victim. In fact, how fast you get the stinger out is much more important than how.
Honey bees leave a stinger behind when they sting a victim. Wasps, yellow jackets, and hornets do not leave a stinger. These relatives of the honey bee can also cause an anaphylactic reaction.
Visscher, P Kirk, Richard S Vetter and Scott Camazine. “Removing bee stings.” The Lancet. 3 Aug 1996
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