The Best Way to
Treat Bee and Wasp Stings
Are you wondering how to treat a bee sting? Wasps and bees can become aggressive. It’s important to be ready with a plan when you or your child is stung. It’s rare, but there are cases where bee and wasp stings are life-threatening.
To treat a bee sting, first ensure the stinger is removed. If the patient is known to be allergic, use an epi-pen or call 911. If the bee or wasp sting isn’t serious, you can use ice, NSAIDs (ibuprofen), and elevation (raise the limb) to reduce pain and swelling.
Don’t worry. We’ll talk about all this in more depth. Also, we’ll discuss how to know if someone is having a serious anaphylactic reaction and some things you can do to prevent stings in the future.
How to Treat a Hornet, Bee, or Wasp Sting
Stings from these insects, known as Hymenoptera, can be super painful. But they can also lead to life-threatening situations. This article will follow a logical step-by-step pattern.
First, we’ll talk about recognizing a sting and how to know if it’s serious. Then, we’ll talk about the steps for treatment, as well as some things that may happen in the days following the sting – so you know what to expect.
Steps to treat a bee sting:
Recognize the sting/Find cover (from a swarm)
Remove the stinger
Treat the sting: Minor reaction
Treat the sting: Serious reaction
Let’s go over these steps.
Recognize the Sting
If you feel a sting, look at and expose the area. Bees can sting through clothing, though it may be more difficult for them to get to the skin (if the clothing is relatively thick/baggy).
Should you be swarmed by bees, it’s important to run away from the swarm fast. Where should you go? Well, most people suggest getting indoors or into a vehicle.
The swarm of bees will be less likely to follow you indoors, and you will be able to focus on removing the bees that are already on you. Shield your face and your neck – these are the most dangerous areas to be stung, as the swelling could cause a blockage to the airway.
Note: in general, only killer bees will swarm in this aggressive attack. Regular honeybees are usually less aggressive.
Once you’ve realized you’ve been stung and you’ve escaped the swarms, it’s time to remove the stingers.
Remove the Stingers
There’s a common thought out there that you should use something like a credit card to scrape the stinger from the skin. The thinking is that you don’t want to squeeze out any more venom. This is no longer recommended by the American College of Emergency Physicians, as it wastes time – just get the stinger out.
The stinger already has a muscle in it that’s involuntarily contracting, so it doesn’t matter if you use a credit card or not: the longer that stinger stays in, the more venom potentially that will enter the victim - if you have a credit card in your hand, great. Otherwise, just grab the stinger and get it out.
Once you have the stinger out, it’s time to think about treatment.
Treating the Bee Sting: Minor Reaction
If the sting is only minor, one or two stings, and you know that the person is not allergic, then you don’t need to panic (even if they are allergic, panic is a bad thing). Make sure the person moves to a safe area where they can rest. Then, clean the sting site with soap and water, or you can use a sting pad or sting ampule to clean the wound and provide pain relief.
After that, if their person tolerates the pain well, there isn’t a whole lot that needs to be done. However, even if the sting seems minor, it’s best to rest for a while and ensure that it doesn’t turn into something more serious.
Sometimes, the person won’t show serious symptoms for several hours. So, don’t leave the person alone for the rest of the day. Further, there are times when people will develop sickness several days later, usually feeling aching or developing a minor fever. Often people don’t realize this sickness was from the bee sting.
Now, let’s talk about what you should do if it develops into something more serious.
Treating the Bee, Wasp, or Hornet Sting: Serious Reaction
If you know that the patient is allergic to bees and they have an epi-pen, it’s best to use the epi-pen right away. Make sure you’re familiar with the epi-pen – it’s not unheard of for people to accidentally press the wrong end of the pen and stab their finger. When people get scared, fine motor skills decrease.
After you’ve used the epi-pen, call 911 or get the patient to the hospital. There may be a more serious reaction after the EPI wears off.
Clean the wound and you can use ice packs to decrease swelling. If the patient is having trouble breathing, it’s best not to give them anything by mouth. However, if they can tolerate it, you can give them Benadryl to help reduce the histamine response.
Let’s talk about how to recognize an anaphylactic reaction – there’s a first time for everything.
How to Recognize an Anaphylactic Reaction from a Bee Sting
An allergic reaction is different from an anaphylactic reaction. Anaphylaxis is a full-body response, and it is often known as anaphylactic shock. Anaphylaxis is often known as an overreaction.
In the medical world, shock means something different than psychological “shock.” Medical shock means the body is no longer able to compensate for the injury or illness it has sustained – if something doesn’t change, the patient may not survive.
So, how do you recognize that someone is in anaphylactic shock?
Signs of anaphylaxis:
Trouble breathing. Trouble breathing is the tell-tale sign that something is wrong. If someone says that they are having trouble breathing or you can hear wheezes, pay attention, call 911, and act fast.
Profuse hives. These look like raised rashes on the skin. They may start as small red dots and then grow larger – they often show up on the chest, back, or abdomen; however, they could be anywhere on the body.
Swelling. You may notice the patient's lips and tongue begin to swell. If someone says their tongue is swelling, this is a serious emergency. However, there may also be swelling on the hands and feet.
Low blood pressure. This is one of the signs of shock. Also, the patient may have sweaty skin, a weak and rapid pulse (in the wrist) and altered mental status (they may feel drowsy).
Nausea. Some people feel the need to vomit.
If you notice any of these signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis, the patient may either be in the beginning or end stages of anaphylaxis. What’s the treatment? This patient needs epinephrine, but they also need to get to the hospital as quickly and as safely as possible.
How to Protect Yourself from Bees, Wasps, and Hornets
As we said, regular honeybees pose little threat to people. However, there are more and more killer bees (also known as Africanized honeybees, they escaped captivity about 50 years ago. Their venom is no more potent, but their affinity to attack in swarms is what makes them so dangerous).
Wasps, hornets, and yellow jackets are more aggressive than honeybees. Let’s talk about several steps to keep yourself and your family safe. As we like to say around here, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Steps to stay safe from bees, wasps, and hornets:
Watch the environment. Just beware of the places bees and wasps hide. Yellow jackets like to hide in the ground, wasps like to find cracks in the wall, and hornets may make a large nest in trees or under the deck. Keep your eyes peeled around these locations. Be careful when walking in a new area or sitting on a park bench.
Remove the problem. You can hire someone to come and relocate honeybees. These bees are helpful to the environment, and they make honey! If you have someone move them, then you can avoid killing them.
Spray the hive. This may be your only option for yellow jackets, wasps, and hornets. You can spray the hive, hopefully eliminating the threat. In general, only use this option if the hornets are a direct threat to your home – like if they have a nest around a door or deck.
Also, if you spray the hive, wait until the just after sundown, when the wasps are back in the nests – this ensures they don’t just start a new hive in the same area.
Let’s go over some final thoughts.
Final thoughts: Treating Bee and Hornet Stings
The first step is to get away from the hive or swarm. Then, you need to remove the stingers. Don’t worry about how you remove the stingers; just get them out as quickly and efficiently as you can. Wash the wound with soap and water; this will protect from infection.
You can use ice for pain and elevate for swelling. If you're curious, here's a video explaining some quick tips on bites and stings. If it’s a serious reaction, you need epinephrine, and you need to get the patient to the hospital.