Becoming the target of a stinging insect is painful and unpleasant under the best of circumstances. However, for people who are allergic to insect venom, a simple sting that would cause nothing more than localized pain, redness, and swelling in most people can cause a severe or even life-threatening reaction.
In fact, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI), it has been estimated that insect stings cause potentially life-threatening allergic reactions in 0.4%-0.8% of children and 3% of adults, and each year insect sting anaphylaxis causes at least 90-100 deaths.
The good news is, with the right treatment and avoidance strategy, insect allergies can be managed effectively and the risk of experiencing a severe reaction can be greatly reduced.
Insect allergy symptoms
An allergic reaction to an insect sting might include one or more of the following symptoms:
- Hives, itching, and swelling in areas other than the sting site
- Abdominal cramping, vomiting, intense nausea, or diarrhea
- Tightness in the chest and difficulty breathing
- Hoarse voice, swelling of the tongue or throat, or difficulty swallowing.
Anaphylaxis is a much more severe allergic reaction that can occur after an insect sting, often within minutes. This condition can be rapidly fatal and should be considered a medical emergency.
The ACAAI notes that anaphylaxis causes dizziness or a sharp drop in blood pressure and can lead to loss of consciousness or cardiac arrest. Anyone who gets stung and experiences symptoms of anaphylaxis should immediately inject epinephrine (an epinephrine auto-injector should be kept close at hand if there is a known insect allergy) and call 911 to summon emergency care.
Insect allergy culprits
In our area, four types of stinging insects are the biggest troublemakers: honeybees, wasps, hornets, and yellow jackets. In the southern US, you need to add fire ants to that list. Though Northwest Ohioans don’t need to worry about fire ants here at home, they certainly can encounter them when traveling to warmer regions.
An ounce of prevention
The first line of defense against insect stings—whether you’re allergic or not—is avoidance of the culprits. If you spot a stinging insect, stay calm and quiet and slowly move away. Also, avoid wearing brightly colored clothing and perfumes, including sweet-smelling soaps, lotions, and shampoos; use caution when cooking or eating outdoors and when drinking sweet beverages such as soda or juice; wear closed-toe footwear (some stinging insects make nests in the ground); and avoid loose-fitting garments that can trap stinging insects against your body and lead to multiple stings.
People with known insect allergies should take steps to protect themselves when they travel as well. This includes packing their auto-injectable epinephrine as well as any other medications their doctor has prescribed to help manage their allergy symptoms, such as antihistamines and a rescue inhaler. Also, it’s vital for people with a known severe insect allergy to learn how to use an epinephrine auto-injector before they actually need it. The time to read the instructions for one of these devices is not in the middle of an anaphylactic reaction.
See your allergist
If you suspect you have an insect allergy, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with an allergist for an evaluation. He or she can perform testing to determine which types of insect venom you’re sensitive to, get you started on an appropriate treatment plan and avoidance strategy, and provide training on the proper use of an epinephrine auto-injector if necessary. Your allergist can also discuss with you the option of gradual desensitization through insect venom immunotherapy. This treatment approach involves administering a series of shots containing minute amounts of venom over time so the patient develops a tolerance and either won’t react to future stings or will experience only a minor reaction if stung.
The bottom line is, if you’ve ever had a severe reaction to an insect sting, you should see your allergist promptly for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan. Insect allergies can be very serious, but they’re also very manageable with proper care.