Insect stings are never pleasant. But for some, the discomfort goes beyond the moderate pain that dissipates in a few hours. Bee and wasp stings and certain spider bites are toxic for everyone. But some individuals are allergic to the venom, producing a much more serious reaction. Official estimates are in the range of 2 million people in the U.S. who are allergic to the venom.
Symptoms may involve swelling of the lips, tongue and throat. In severe cases that can produce difficulty breathing. Anaphylaxis is common in those allergic to bites and stings. The blood pressure drops precipitously, leading to dizziness and possible circulatory failure. The throat can swell to the point that breathing is completely blocked.
Even in less severe cases, wheezing is a common allergic reaction to those sensitive to venom. Itching and swelling at the site are typical.
What To Do?
Fortunately, there are several effective strategies for dealing with these allergic reactions.
Avoidance is always best, but that can be hard to do. Bees are prevalent anywhere flowers are found. Wasps are attracted to sugar solutions, meat and other foods that can be inside or outside the home. Hummingbird feeders, outdoor barbecues and other common elements can attract either. Hanging traps away from these attractions can help.
Spiders are a little easier to avoid, usually. They tend to avoid contact. Keep sheds clean and swept free of webs to encourage them to try their luck elsewhere. Keep a sharp eye out for them in dimly lit areas of the basement or gardening shed.
What should you do when you are bit or stung, anyway?
Only a professional diagnosis can completely distinguish an ordinary reaction to a bite or sting and an allergic reaction. But anytime the reaction goes beyond the normal level of pain and swelling that subside in a few hours, an allergy should be suspected.
Sometimes, of course, you can’t wait that long. If breathing becomes difficult or the person experiences facial or throat swelling away from the site, measures will need to be taken immediately.
When bees release their barbed stinger and fly away, the stinger remains in the skin. It is usually accompanied by all or part of the venom sac and contains tissue that will continue to pump venom after it separates from the bee. Don’t pluck the stinger out. Instead, try to scrape it away. This helps remove the barb and gets rid of the sac without squeezing out more venom. Wasp stingers can be removed by scraping the skin with a sterilized dull knife in the direction opposite the entry.
Then apply ice or a very cold, wet washcloth to the area to reduce pain and swelling. If allergic symptoms persist or grow, have medication on hand.
With spider bites, look for any necrosis (black, dying tissue) that occurs apart from the redness or swelling. If the affected area spreads beyond the puncture site, seek professional care at once.
Antihistamines like Benadryl (diphenhydramine) are beneficial. A topical hydrocortisone cream can help, too. In more severe cases, it will be desirable to have handy an EpiPen or similar device. They allow patients to inject a controlled amount of epinephrine to treat anaphylaxis symptoms. They’re not for everyone, however. Consult your physician first.