Bee stings are a common outdoor nuisance. In most cases, bee stings are just annoying, and home treatment is all that's necessary to ease the pain. But if you're allergic to bee stings or you get stung numerous times, you may have a more-serious reaction that requires emergency treatment.
You can take several steps to avoid bee stings — as well as hornet and wasp stings — and find out how to treat them if you do get stung.
Bee stings can produce different reactions, ranging from temporary pain and discomfort to a severe allergic reaction. Having one type of reaction doesn't mean you'll always have the same reaction every time you're stung or that the next reaction will necessarily be more severe.
Most of the time, bee sting symptoms are minor and include:
- Instant, sharp burning pain at the sting site
- A red welt at the sting area
- Slight swelling around the sting area
In most people, the swelling and pain go away within a few hours.
Some people who get stung by a bee or other insect have a bit stronger reaction, with signs and symptoms such as:
- Extreme redness
- Swelling at the site of the sting that gradually enlarges over the next day or two
Moderate reactions tend to resolve over five to 10 days. Having a moderate reaction doesn't mean you'll have a severe allergic reaction the next time you're stung. But some people develop similar moderate reactions each time they're stung. If this happens to you, talk to your doctor about treatment and prevention, especially if the reaction becomes more severe each time.
Severe allergic reaction
A severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) to bee stings is potentially life-threatening and requires emergency treatment. A small percentage of people who are stung by a bee or other insect quickly develop anaphylaxis. Signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis include:
- Skin reactions, including hives and itching and flushed or pale skin
- Difficulty breathing
- Swelling of the throat and tongue
- A weak, rapid pulse
- Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
- Dizziness or fainting
- Loss of consciousness
People who have a severe allergic reaction to a bee sting have a 25% to 65% chance of anaphylaxis the next time they're stung. Talk to your doctor or an allergy specialist about prevention measures such as immunotherapy ("allergy shots") to avoid a similar reaction in case you get stung again.
Multiple bee stings
Generally, insects such as bees and wasps aren't aggressive and only sting in self-defense. In most cases, this results in one or perhaps a few stings. In some cases a person will disrupt a hive or swarm of bees and get multiple stings. Some types of bees — such as Africanized honeybees — are more likely than are other bees to swarm, stinging in a group.
If you get stung more than a dozen times, the accumulation of venom may induce a toxic reaction and make you feel quite sick. Signs and symptoms include:
- Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
- A feeling of spinning (vertigo)
- Dizziness or fainting
Multiple stings can be a medical emergency in children, older adults, and people who have heart or breathing problems.
When to see a doctor
In most cases, bee stings don't require a visit to your doctor. In more-severe cases, you'll need immediate care.
Call 911 or other emergency services if you're having a serious reaction to a bee sting that suggests anaphylaxis, even if it's just one or two signs or symptoms. If you were prescribed an emergency epinephrine autoinjector (EpiPen, Auvi-Q, others), use it right away as your doctor directed.
Seek prompt medical care if you've been swarmed by bees and have multiple stings.
Make an appointment to see your doctor if:
- Bee sting symptoms don't go away within a few days
- You've had other symptoms of an allergic response to a bee sting
To sting, a bee jabs a barbed stinger into the skin. Bee sting venom contains proteins that affect skin cells and the immune system, causing pain and swelling around the sting area. In people with a bee sting allergy, bee venom can trigger a more-serious immune system reaction.
You're at increased risk of bee stings if:
- You live in an area where bees are especially active or with beehives nearby
- Your work or hobbies require spending time outside
You're more likely to have an allergic reaction to bee stings if you've had an allergic reaction to a bee sting in the past, even if it was minor.
Adults tend to have more-severe reactions than children do and are more likely to die of anaphylaxis than children are.
The following tips can help reduce your risk of getting stung by bees:
- Take care when drinking sweet beverages outside. Wide, open cups may be your best option because you can see if a bee is in them. Inspect cans and straws before drinking from them.
- Tightly cover food containers and trash cans.
- Clear away garbage, fallen fruit, and dog or other animal feces (flies can attract wasps).
- Wear closed-toe shoes when walking outside.
- Don't wear bright colors or floral prints, which can attract bees.
- Don't wear loose clothing, which can trap bees between the cloth and your skin.
- When driving, keep your windows rolled up.
- Be careful when mowing the lawn or trimming vegetation, activities that might arouse insects in a beehive or wasp nest.
- Have hives and nests near your home removed by a professional.
Know what to do when you're exposed to bees:
- If a few bees are flying around you, stay calm and slowly walk away from the area. Swatting at an insect may cause it to sting.
- If a bee or wasp stings you, or many insects start to fly around, cover your mouth and nose and quickly leave the area. When a bee stings, it releases a chemical that attracts other bees. If you can, get into a building or closed vehicle.