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Healthy Outlook

How to Treat Bee and Wasp Stings—and When to See a Doctor

By Dr. Thomas McCoy

Friday, April 25, 2014

It’s April, which means spring is here. I love the spring — the flowers are blooming, the weather is getting warmer, and I get to enjoy spending more time outdoors. Of course, spending more time outdoors can carry risks. One moment you’re on a nature hike, the next moment you’re on a nature hike getting stung by a bee.

Yes, spring is not just the beginning of baseball season, it’s the beginning of bee-sting season.

All kidding aside, bee stings can actually pose a serious health threat. If someone is allergic to bees, a sting can be a life-threatening situation. In the vast majority of cases, though, bee or wasp stings are not a cause for concern—they usually just cause some pain, swelling, redness and itching at the site of the sting.

Dealing with a bee or wasp sting will obviously be different depending on your sensitivity. But let’s begin with the most common scenario in which a person has a mild reaction. The first thing you need to do is remove the stinger if you were stung by a bee (wasps don’t leave stingers behind). You can get it out with your fingers, tweezers or even the edge of a credit card. Remove it as quickly as you can in order to limit the amount of venom released.

Next, wash the affected area with soap and water. Once you’ve done that, apply ice and take an anti-inflammatory medication like ibuprofen to limit the swelling. If the affected area gets itchy—a fairly common side effect—you can apply hydrocortisone cream or calamine lotion to get some relief. The pain and discomfort should go away in a few hours. With a more moderate reaction, swelling around the site of the sting may persist for a few days and even grow larger.

There are also alternative home remedies that you can find recommended on the Internet like meat tenderizer and toothpaste. I can’t vouch for these remedies, although some might have some therapeutic value. What I can say is that ice and anti-inflammatory medication are what most people need to get better.

Sometimes, however, ice and Motrin won’t do it. In rare instances, people who are severely allergic to bee stings can go into anaphylactic shock, a potentially fatal allergic reaction. Signs that you may be having a serious allergic reaction to a bee or wasp sting include wheezing, swelling of throat and tongue, rash or hives, nausea, vomiting and dizziness. If you are experiencing these symptoms you should call 911 or seek immediate medical attention at the nearest emergency room.

People who have had anaphylactic reactions to bee stings need to get an EpiPen and carry it with them in case they are stung again. Users inject a pre-loaded amount of epinephrine with the device, which provides a fast-acting method for reducing symptoms of anaphylaxis. After using the EpiPen, people should still go to the emergency room as they may need further medical care and observation.

Now that I have contributed to adding bee stings to your list of phobias, let me emphasize that only a very small percentage of the population is allergic to bee stings and a sting is rarely fatal. So go out and enjoy the beautiful weather and, if you get stung, the odds are you’ll be fine—just monitor your symptoms to make sure you’re not having a serious reaction.

Healthy Outlook is written by the professional staff of Contra Costa Health Services, the county health department. Send questions to series coordinator Dr. David Pepper at For more health information, go to
About the Author

Thomas McCoy is a physician at Contra Costa Regional Medical Center specializing in emergency medicine.