Anybody can in fact develop an allergy to wasp and bee stings, and regular contact with those insects, for example as bee keeper, increases the chances. Even gardeners are more likely to develop an allergy to their stings, although it is rare to be allergic to both insects.
Even though children are more likely to be stung, allergic reactions are less common among their age. It is estimated that 1 of 150 children in the UK suffer a severe reaction to insect stings, whilst in adults that ratio increases to 3 in 100. Despite this, severe reactions very rarely lead to death, predominantly among older people. So even if a severe reaction goes untreated panic is unwarranted.
- Localised reactions
More common to children than adults is a small localised effect is swelling around the sting, up to 10cm diameter, lasting around 24 hours. Sometimes the entire limb may feel the effect but there are no broader body wide symptoms.
- Mild systemic reactions
In higher grade reactions hives and skin swelling may break out in areas remote from the sting. For children these reactions are not significant or suggestive of danger, but in adults they indicate a potential for future severe reactions.
- Moderate to severe systemic reactions (Anaphylaxis)
Any or all of the following symptoms may be present:
- Swelling in the mouth and throat
- Inability to speak or swallow
- Laboured breathing from severe throat swelling or triggered asthma
- Large hives located anywhere on the skin
- Skin flush across the body
- Nausea, vomiting and cramps in the abdominal area
- Giddiness caused by a drop in blood pressure
- Passing out, collapse and unconsciousness
- Anaphylaxis occurs when the sting triggers a release of allergy inducing chemicals (mediators) into the bloodstream, thereby affecting the whole body, which is especially dangerous for blood circulation and breathing.
Blood tests can detect insect allergies by measuring the levels of allergen IgE antibody in the blood, although they are not 100% accurate. Skin tests for wasp and bee allergies are performed with a small injection under the skin, as the skin prick method is unreliable in these cases. Although a little more painful than skin pricks, the injection does not cause anaphylaxis and can be performed at NHS allergy clinics.
It is important that individuals at risk of anaphylactic reactions and their families are trained in the delivering of adrenaline. Companies offer practise devices to help train adrenaline administration, which should be done with a specialist or allergy nurse. Make sure the adrenaline injection is not out of date and keep two doses of it to hand as a repeat dose is sometimes necessary.
Avoid being stung by wasps and bees using a few simple guidelines:
- Light coloured clothing wards off bees, who only sting in self defence, and staying scent free makes you less of a target.
- Following this, anything that might make you resemble a flower, such as florid prints and bright colours will help keep you anonymous to bees.
- Wasps are more aggressive than bees, and seek out all kinds of sugary substances, such as fizzy drinks, so be cautious when drinking soda in a wasp busy area.
- Bare feet are one of the most stung regions so wearing shoes outdoors is advised.
- Covering the skin with longs sleeves and trousers whilst gardening
- Do not engage bees or wasps with provocative behaviour
- Nests should always be treated by professional pest controllers
- Driving with the windows up prevent insects getting into your car
Sometimes the stinger will be caught and left behind in the skin, at which point it should be removed gently to avoid more venom release. The best way to do this is to flick it out with your fingernail; trying to pull it out may squeeze the venom sac triggering a further release of venom. Fortunately it is rare for wasps to leave their sting in the skin, and the best first course of action is placing a cold compress on the sting for a while.
- Localised reactions (involving swelling of affected area, urticaria and flushing):
Antihistamines in pill or topical cream form will reduce smaller local reactions, whilst oral steroid tables administered daily for up to 3 days can treat larger ones. The tablets should be prescribed by a GP.
- Anaphylactic reactions:
Use an adrenaline auto-injector immediately if there is one to hand
Call an ambulance at once and be sure to tell the operator that the victim is suffering an anaphylactic shock.
Make sure the victim is reclined, lying down, and do not allow them to get up or walk.
If there is no improvement and they have not recovered after 5 minutes, deliver the second adrenaline shot.
Victims should still go to hospital after a shock, even if they recover quickly following the adrenaline shot.
Blue asthma inhalers can be used AFTER the adrenaline has been injected; delivering the injection is the most crucial phase.
Desensitisation is a process that develops immunity to wasp and bee sting reactions. Diluted wasp or bee venom is injected to the patient over monthly intervals up to a period of 3 years. It is a proven way of mitigating the risk of severe or anaphylactic reactions to wasp or bee venom, although does require regular trips to the hospital where the injection is administered.
- Keeping on a Medical Alert bracelet or medallion with details of your allergy.
- Let teachers and colleagues know about your allergy and the needed treatment
- When outside avoid drinking out of beer or soda cans as wasps like to crawl inside.
- Wear shoes outdoors and avoid walking barefoot on grass during the summer, especially if clover is around.
- Wasps feed on fallen fruit so avoid picking them up.
- Remove nearby nests by calling professional pest controllers.