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.
Bee and wasp stings
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).
If you have been stung multiple times call your doctor or the National Poisons Centre on 0800 764 766 for advice.
How to treat
- For a honey bee sting, remove it as quickly as possible by scraping the stinger out using your fingers, a credit card or the blunt side of a knife.
- Wash the area with soap and cold water.
- Application of an ice pack for 15 minutes to help relieve local pain and swelling
- Topical creams, antihistamines and paracetamol can be useful in controlling local pain, swelling and itchiness. Inflammation may also be managed with use of a hydrocortisone cream.
The National Poisons Centre is available 24 hours a day on 0800 764 766 for advice on first aid and treatment of stings.
- 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.
- 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, or been stung, on the mouth, throat, eye, face, neck, or genitalia
- pain that is not controlled by following the self-care instructions
- signs of infection: increasing pain, redness, swelling, red streaks leading away from the sting, heat, discharge of pus, fever or chills
- any new or worsening symptoms.
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), salbutamol (ventolin) and an 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.