Bee and wasp stings

Bee and wasp stings can be very painful, and in some people can cause a dangerous allergic reaction. Find out how to avoid getting stung, and what to do to treat the sting.

Summary

Photo of a honey bee, which has stripes of darker yellow and is fuzzier than a wasp.
Honey bee, photo by Phil Bendle / CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.

Photo of a wasp, which has yellower stripes than a honey bee, and is not fuzzy.
Wasp, photo by Phil Bendle / CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.

Honey bees and bumble bees only sting if provoked (stood on or picked up), while wasps can be aggressive and sting more than once.

Bees leave their stinger with a venom sac in your skin, but wasps do not. Most stings itch or hurt for one or two days. The swelling may last a week.

Allergy to stings

A bee or wasp sting is a minor irritation for most people. However, some people are especially sensitive and may develop a severe allergic reaction called anaphylaxis.

Call 111 for an ambulance if you or someone else has been stung and has symptoms of a serious allergic reaction or anaphylaxis.

These symptoms include:

  • swelling around the lips and eyes
  • rapid development of a rash
  • shortness of breath or wheezing
  • chest tightness
  • severe dizziness or faints
  • persistent sneezing or coughing
  • hoarse voice
  • difficulty swallowing or throat tightness
  • signs of shock (pale skin, rapid pulse and fainting).

Treatment

Self care for stings

  • For a bee sting, scrape the stinger out using your fingers, a credit card or the blunt side of a knife. Avoid squeezing the sac as this will inject more venom.
  • Wash the area with soap and cold water.
  • To relieve stinging use an anti-sting ointment such as Soov (unless the bite is near your eyes), a paste made of baking soda and cold water, or an ice cube for 20 minutes.
  • Apply ice compresses every two to three hours to reduce swelling and pain.
  • If necessary, take pain relief such as Panadol.
  • Antihistamines such as Telfast, Claratyne and Phenergan may relieve itching and swelling. A cream with hydrocortisone will reduce inflammation. You can get these from your pharmacy.

Medicine precautions

  1. Do not give aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) or aspirin-containing products to anyone 18 years or younger because of the risk of a serious illness called Reye's syndrome.
  2. Take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) with food or milk to prevent stomach irritation. Do not give NSAIDs to anyone with:
    • NSAID-induced asthma
    • increased risk of bleeding, such as ulcer disease, a bleeding disorder, if taking blood thinners (anticoagulants), or following surgery, significant trauma or major dental work
    • an allergy to NSAIDs.

When to see your doctor

Call your doctor if you have been stung and have:

  • swelling in your eyelids, lips or genitals
  • signs of infection: increasing pain, redness, swelling, red streaks leading away from the sting, heat, discharge of pus, fever or chills
  • pain that is not controlled by following the self-care instructions
  • any new or worsening symptoms.

Prevention

Avoid getting stung

To avoid bee and wasp stings:

  • Stay well away from hives (look for bees’ flight paths).
  • Call an exterminator if you see any wasp nests around your home.
  • Take care when eating food outdoors, especially sugary drinks and fish sandwiches, which can attract bees and wasps.
  • Bees and wasps also like bright-coloured or dark clothing, and perfumes. If you’re hiking in bush and forest areas wear hats, long-sleeved shirts and long pants, and light colours.

Allergy to stings

If you have ever had an anaphylactic reaction to a sting, you should always carry a kit containing adrenaline (epi-pen), ventolin and antihistamine. Your doctor can prescribe these for you.

Hypo-sensitisation therapy (immunotherapy) is also available. Your doctor will regularly give you small amounts of bee venom to stop your body reacting so badly to it in the future.