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In general, bees tend to sting people or animals when they feel threatened or perceive a threat to their nests or hives. While yellow jackets, hornets and wasps tend to sting repeatedly during an attack, bees are equipped with stingers that have little barbs or hooks on them and typically become lodged in the skin. When a bee stings, its stinger, the venom sac attached to the stinger, and other parts of the honey bee’s body rip away from the insect’s body and are left behind, killing the bee. Although the bee dies, its sting takes effect quickly, and, if the stinger is not removed quickly, the symptoms gradually increase as the venom sac continues to pump venom into the wound for several seconds. So if you are stung, it is important to remove the stinger as quickly as possible.
After removing the stinger, it is important to immediately clean the area with soap and cold water and to use a cold compression such as ice or an ice pack. If possible, it is helpful to elevate the limb where you were stung. If needed, over the counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can help reduce pain. An antihistamine and hydrocortisone ointment can help calm the local reaction. In case the local reaction worsens, your doctor may prescribe an oral steroid or antihistamine to help calm the swelling or itching.
The symptoms that result from a sting vary, depending on the amount of poison that has entered the immune system of the victim. Typically, people who get stung will immediately feel a sharp, burning pain, rapidly followed by a red welt at the sting site, with a small, white spot at the center marking where the stinger punctured the skin. In most cases, the swelling and pain resolves within a few hours, however, as many as 10 percent of individuals develop a large local reaction experiencing exaggerated redness and swelling at the sting site that continues to gradually enlarge to around four-inches in diameter. After peaking around the second day, these reactions resolve over a period of five to 10 days.
Although a bee sting is not commonly hazardous, some people may be allergic to the bee’s venom. People should immediately seek out emergency medical assistance or call 911 if they experience symptoms of an allergic reaction, such as tongue and throat swelling, wheezing, dizziness or fainting, nausea, shortness of breath or drop in blood pressure. In rare cases, approximately 3 percent, individuals experience an extreme allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis. These reactions may be life threatening and require immediate medical treatment. Symptoms of anaphylaxis include generalized itching, rashes or hives, tightness or swelling in the throat, upset stomach, including pain, nausea and vomiting, as well as dizziness. In one percent of anaphylaxis cases, people may experience severe shortness of breath, a drop in blood pressure, loss of consciousness and shock. While there are other causes of anaphylaxis, stinging insects are the leading cause of anaphylaxis-related deaths in the United States. Each year, stinging insects send approximately half a million people to the emergency room.