Everything You Should Know About Allergy to Stinging Insects
Sometimes, you may have no idea about your allergy to bee stings and suddenly develop a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction after being stung by a bee while working in your garden. Is it possible to find out whether you are allergic to flying insect stings before you have your first allergic reaction? Can you prevent a reaction to an insect sting? These and other questions will be discussed in detail below.
What Is an Allergy to Flying Stinging Insects?
An allergy to flying stinging insects is a relatively common condition. These insects usually include honeybees, yellow jackets, hornets, wasps, fire ants, and others.
The sting of these insects will cause a skin reaction at this site in most people, even those who don’t have an allergy. However, some people (estimated 10-15 percent of the population, according to research) may also develop swelling on larger areas that can last up to seven days.
A serious anaphylactic reaction to a flying insect sting may occur in up to 3 percent of adults. Speaking of children, about 1 in 200 kids will experience anaphylaxis after being bitten by a stinging insect.
Anaphylaxis is a systemic (whole-body) allergic reaction caused by an insect sting (or other allergens). An anaphylactic reaction usually develops a few minutes after a person was stung by the insect, but it may take up to a few hours for the symptoms to occur. The symptoms of anaphylaxis include: while-body itching, hives, flushing, swelling of the lips, tongue, throat and skin (spreading from the site of the sting), difficulty breathing, wheezing, coughing, sneezing, runny nose or postnasal drip, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, a metallic taste in the mouth, low blood pressure, tachycardia, lightheadedness, sense of panic and passing out. If you or your loved one has any or all of these symptoms, you should seek for medical help immediately.
Official statistics shows that around 40 people in the United States only experience a fatal reaction resulting from a venom allergy, but this number may actually be larger. In most cases, deaths caused by venom allergy occur in people who didn’t know about having this allergy.
Who Is at Risk for Being Allergic to Flying Stinging Insects?
The possibility of developing a life-threatening or even fatal reaction from an allergy you didn’t even know about can be terrifying. Still, it’s not the reason to worry too much. In fact, the probability of dying from a bee sting remains too low, compared to other potential causes like a car crush.
Allergy to bees and other stinging insects may affect nearly anyone. However, people with a history of other types of allergy (e.g. allergic rhinitis or asthma) are more likely to have an allergic reaction to a bee sting.
Which Stinging Insects May Cause Venom Allergies?
Venom allergies may be caused by different flying stinging insects. Knowing the exact cause of an allergic reaction may help in the future, if you consider undergoing a course of immunotherapy, because there are different approaches for different insects.
Some of the most common venom allergy-causing insects include: honeybees, Africanized honeybees, bumblebees, yellow jackets, hornets, and wasps.
Honeybee nests are usually found in tree hollows, logs and inside buildings. When honeybees are far away from their hive, they are normally non-aggressive and are less likely to bite you. However, if their nest is disturbed or there is any threat to it, the bees can become very aggressive. While other stinging insect may sometimes leave a stinger in the victim’s skin as well, but only occasionally, honeybees are the only ones to do it routinely. Remember that the longer the stinger is inside your skin, the more venom gets into your blood, therefore, you should find the quickest way to get it out.
Africanized honeybees are also known as killer honeybees, and these ones are really aggressive compared to domestic honeybees. Killer honeybees were created as a result of crossbreeding of African honeybees with domestic honeybees. The venom of Africanized honeybees is absolutely similar to that of domestic honeybees, which means that people allergic to domestic honeybees are also allergic to the Africanized ones. What makes them more dangerous, however, is that killer honeybees tend to attack and sting in large groups (up to hundreds of bees).
Hornets also tend to be very aggressive. They can attack and sting someone just because he is mowing a lawn nearby. There are two types of hornets: yellow and white-faced. Both types usually build their nest in trees and shrubs.
Yellow jackets look similar to wasps, and they live in mounds that are built into the ground. Yellow jackets are quite aggressive insects and probably the ones that sting the most. Those are the yellow jackets who tend to attack people at picnics and around trash cans with sweet food and drinks. They can also often crawl into your food or drink and sting you on the lip and even inside the mouth or throat. Sometimes, yellow jacket stings may carry bacteria and cause a skin infection.
Wasps’ honeycomb nests can be found in various places, for example, in a tree, under the eaves of a house or under the furniture. Wasps normally feed on other insects and flower nectar, and they are usually less aggressive than yellow jackets.
Bumblebees are generally considered to be non-aggressive. They rarely sting people, only if provoked or if their nest is threatened. However, due to their loudness and slowness, you will likely have enough time to escape. These insects usually build their nests on the ground or in piles of wood. Like wasps, they normally feed on insects and flower nectar.
How to Prevent an Allergic Reaction to an Insect Sting?
Generally speaking, the most effective method to prevent an allergic reaction to a stinging insect is to avoid being stung. This can be done in many ways.
To start with, you can contact a specialist who will exterminate all the insect nests within and around your house. This should be done periodically because new nests may appear. You can also purchase an insecticide for stinging insects, in case you find a nest.
Avoiding wearing clothes with flower patterns and using perfumes that smell like flowers, as this is what usually attracts the bees. When you are walking outside, especially on grass, you should always wear shoes. If you have to do some gardening or any other work outside, you should be especially careful. Experts recommend that you wear long-sleeved shirts, gloves, pants, socks and close-toed shoes. As mentioned earlier, yellow jackets and other insects may get into your food or drinks, therefore, you should always check before consuming.
Getting Tested for a Flying Insect Sting Allergy
Testing for a stinging insect allergy can help to determine the best type of treatment fir the future. You doctor may perform a RAST (blood test) or a skin test, which is still the most commonly used and preferred allergy testing method. The procedure of skin testing for insect allergy is similar to testing for pollen allergies. The only difference might be that a diagnosis of a stinging insect allergy may require higher concentrations of venom extracts. Normally, the testing is done for all stinging insects, because it may be difficult for a person to identify the type of insect that stung them. Besides, some people who were stung by only one insect may have positive allergy testing results to various species of insects. In this case, the treatment will usually involve the use of venom extract from all of the species.
How Can an Insect Venom Allergy Be Treated?
There are two methods of venom allergy treatment: immediate treatment of severe reactions and prophylactic treatment of future reactions.
Treatment of systemic reactions like anaphylaxis involves an immediate injection of epinephrine (adrenaline) and a follow-up medical care. If you are diagnosed with a venom allergy, you may want to carry an epinephrine auto-injector (e.g. Epi-Pen or Twin-Ject) with you.
In case of mild to moderate reactions, such as itching or hives, using an oral antihistamine medication may be enough to alleviate the symptoms. If the symptoms get worse, especially if you develop difficulty breathing, the injection of epinephrine will likely be required.
If the insect leaves the stinger in your skin, you should remove it as soon as possible, to prevent more venom from getting into your system. Don’t try to remove the stinger by squeezing – instead, use tweezers to pull it out carefully. In order to reduce swelling at the site of the sting, put a cold compress or ice on the affected area of the skin.
Prophylactic treatment of potential future reactions involves, first of all, the avoidance method, as well as immunotherapy, commonly referred to as “allergy shots”. Before starting the course of immunotherapy, a person will likely need to undergo allergy testing.
While there is no cure for allergic disorders in general, immunotherapy is the treatment method that is closer to curing than others. Allergy shots for venom allergy use purified venom from the allergy-inducing stinging insect and are given to a patient in the same way as allergy shots for pollen allergy. Usually, three to five years of regular immunotherapy procedures is enough for most people to reduce their risk of developing an allergic reaction to a minimum.
However, researchers say that people who tend to develop life-threatening anaphylactic reactions after being stung by an insect or even after getting an allergy shot, may need to be receiving allergy shots for the rest of their lives, for safety purposes.
There is also another treatment option called rush (accelerated) immunotherapy, which is designed for people who have to spend a lot of time in places where they can easily be stung by an insect. While the risk of an allergic reaction is higher with rush immunotherapy, this method can help to get your venom allergy under control more rapidly, compared to regular immunotherapy.
After a certain period of venom immunotherapy, you doctor may want to perform another venom allergy testing. In case your test shows negative, the course of immunotherapy can be stopped. However, if your allergy doesn’t turn negative, it is important that you complete the full course of treatment.
The Bottom Line
If you have ever had an allergic reaction to insect sting (mild or severe), you may want to get yourself a medical alert that identifies your condition. It could be something like a bracelet or wallet card. Besides, allergy experts suggest that people with severe insect sting allergies always carry an epinephrine auto-injector whenever they leave their house.
Remember that bee stings tend to cause life-threatening reactions or even death in people who don’t know about their allergy. Therefore, it’s important for everyone to get familiar with the signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis and other serious reactions to stinging insects.
Finally, while not all people allergic to insect sting require venom immunotherapy, allergy shots are a really good allergy treatment option that may cure severe allergies.