Experts estimate that 2 million Americans are allergic to insect stings, and many of these individuals are at risk of suffering life-threatening reactions to insect venom.
What is the difference between a normal insect sting reaction and an insect allergy?
Most people will have a local reaction to an insect sting involving redness, swelling and pain or itching in the area around the sting. These symptoms usually resolve without further problems within hours or days. The first time an allergic reaction occurs, the person becomes “sensitized” to the insect venom and symptoms will be similar to a typical insect sting. The next time the person is stung, he or she may develop anaphylaxis. This is a systemic reaction and is a potentially life-threatening condition.
What are the symptoms of a stinging insect allergy?
Symptoms of a stinging insect allergy range from relatively mild , local symptoms to severe systemic reactions involving multiple organ systems known as anaphalaxis. Anaphylaxis produces signs and symptoms that require immediate medical attention including:
- Hives, itching and swelling over large areas of the body
- Tightness in the chest and difficulty breathing
- Swelling of the tongue
- Dizziness or passing out
- Stomach cramps or diarrhea
- In severe cases, a rapid fall in blood pressure may result in shock, loss of consciousness and cardiac arrest (heart attack)
How is an insect sting diagnosed?
The diagnosis of stinging insect allergy is made first by taking a careful history regarding past reactions. If your allergist decides that testing is necessary, skin tests are typically done first. If there is any uncertainty after skin testing is done, then blood tests, or RAST tests, may be added to aid in diagnosis.
Who is at risk for an stinging insect venom allergy?
Anyone can develop a stinging insect venom allergy. However, certain factors that increase your risk include:
- Age. Young children are more at risk
- History of other types of allergies
- Family history of allergies
- Occupations that expose you to insects
- Living conditions that expose you to insects
Most allergies are mild, but life-threatening reactions to insect stings occur in 0.4% to 0.8% of children and 3% of adults.*
How do you treat insect stings?
Treatment is determined on an individual basis as prescribed by your physician. Please contact our office to schedule an appointment with one of our allergy and asthma specialists.
How do I identify stinging insects that cause allergies?
To avoid stinging insects, it is important to identify them. Here are descriptions of stinging insects that are most likely to cause allergies:
- Yellow jackets’ nests are made of a paper-maché material and are usually located underground, but can sometimes be found in the walls of frame buildings, cracks in masonry or woodpiles.
- Honeybees and bumble bees are non-aggressive and will only sting when provoked. However, Africanized honeybees also known as “killer bees” found in the Southwestern United States are more aggressive and may sting in swarms. Domesticated honeybees live in man-made hives, while wild honeybees live in colonies or “honeycombs” in hollow trees or cavities of buildings.
- Paper wasps’ nests are usually made of a paper-like material that forms a circular comb of cells which opens downward. The nests are often located under eaves, behind shutters, or in shrubs or woodpiles.
- Hornets are usually larger than yellow jackets. Their nests are gray or brown, football-shaped and made of a paper material similar to that of yellow jackets’ nests. Hornets’ nests are usually found high above ground on branches of trees, in shrubbery, on gables or in tree hollows.
- Fire ants build nests of dirt in the ground that may be quite tall (18 inches) in the right kinds of soil.
Is there a cure for insect venom allergies?
If your allergist finds that you are at risk of experiencing a severe allergic reaction or anaphylaxis after an insect sting, he or she may recommend immunotherapy. Venom immunotherapy is highly effective—up to 97 percent of people who complete the series of shots have a significantly lower risk of a severe reaction to an insect sting.
How do you prevent insect stings?
The best way to prevent an insect sting is to stay away from them! You may want to follow these tips to avoid potentially dangerous insect stings.
Tips to avoid insect stings:
- Have any nests around your home destroyed by an exterminator.
- If flying stinging insects are close by, remain calm and move slowly away.
- Avoid brightly colored clothing and perfume when outdoors.
- Because the smell of food attracts insects, be careful outdoors when cooking, eating or drinking sweet drinks like soda or juice.
- Beware of insects inside straws or canned drinks.
- Keep food covered until eaten.
- Wear closed-toe shoes outdoors and avoid going barefoot.
- Avoid loose-fitting garments that can trap insects between material and skin.
Consult Your Allergist
If you have had a serious reaction to an insect sting, make an appointment with your allergist. With proper testing, your allergist can diagnose your allergy and determine the best form of treatment. With a proper diagnosis, treatment plan and careful avoidance, people with an insect allergy can feel more confident and enjoy being outdoors.
How can you prevent developing stinging insect allergies?
The best way to prevent the development of stinging insect allergies ts to avoid them as much as possible.
*Stinging insect hypersensitivity: A practice parameter update. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2004; 114:869-886.