During the summer, spending time in the great outdoors means sharing space with all sorts of critters, particularly insects. But you can take the sting out of summer with some basic understanding of what’s normal, and what’s not, when it comes to insect sting reactions.
Many people live in fear of insect stings without ever having had an allergic reaction, while others who are actually at risk of a life-threatening episode are not receiving the advice or care they need, says Dr. William Moote, an allergist/immunologists at the Allergy and Immunology Clinic at St. Joseph’s Hospital in London. Every year, the clinic sees about 200 new patients for insect sting allergies. It’s the only hospital clinic in the region with a specialty in insect sting allergies.
“If you’ve had a severe reaction to a sting by honeybees, hornets, wasps or yellow jackets, it doesn’t necessarily mean the next one will be worse, as many people believe,” says Dr. Moote. “But it does mean that you should be seen by an allergist.”
For those without an allergy, a normal insect sting reaction is local swelling and pain, for which over-the-counter remedies will do. A more significant “large local reaction” is when the swelling interferes with function, explains Dr. Moote. If that happens, the person should be assessed for a potential treatment.
A severe allergic reaction may result in anaphylaxis, which involves multiple systems in the body. The symptoms are unpredictable and come on rapidly. They may include: hives; itching; shortness of breath, wheezing or coughing; swelling of the lips, tongue or throat; stomach cramping, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea; fast heart rate, low blood pressure, dizziness or passing out, and even shock.
“Anaphylaxis can be deadly yet patients often don’t receive the recommended preventive intervention – instructions on avoiding the allergen, a prescription for self-injectable epinephrine (EpiPen) and a referral to an allergist,” says Dr. Moote.
For those who have positive skin tests for insect sting allergies, effective treatment is available, he adds. Monthly injections for three to five years usually eliminate the problem of severe reactions permanently.
The incidence of insect stings spike in September when the weather gets cooler and honeybees, hornets, wasps and yellow jackets are slower, clumsier and more likely to get in the way of humans. So bee safe this summer. Get the facts and the care you need.