Definition and Overview

Bee stings are very common but usually minor skin reactions that rarely require emergency care or medical treatment. Most bee stings can be easily treated at home and although they may be painful, they readily respond to mild pain medications. There are some rare instances, however, such as when the sting triggers a severe allergic response or when a person gets multiple stings at the same time or gets swarmed by a whole host of bees, wherein emergency medical intervention may be required.

Cause of Condition

Bee stings occur when a person is bitten by any kind of bee, such as a honeybee, sweat bee, or a bumblebee. These stings trigger symptoms and allergic reactions due to the venom that bees carry, making them more serious compared to other insect bites. This venom has an effect on the skin, which causes pain and inflammation at the puncture site. In some cases, however, the venom may compromise the immune system, either moderately or severely, which leads to an allergic reaction.

People who work with bees, live in areas where bees and beehives are present, or often spend time outdoors have a higher risk of getting stung. However, bees do not usually sting for no particular reason; they usually only attack when alerted by released pheromones (from a fellow honey bee) or when they perceive a person’s actions to be threatening to their hive.

Stings caused by honeybee are unique for some reasons. First, honeybee stings release pheromones that attract the attention of nearby bees. This is because honeybees are unable to pull out their stingers after puncturing a person’s skin; once it flies away, therefore, the stinger, as well as a part of its digestive tract and soft tissues, gets pulled away, causing the bee to die. This then alerts other honeybees in the area. Other types of bees, however, do not die after they sting a person.

Key Symptoms

The way the body responds to bee stings tend to differ in severity and in the actual symptoms they produce. Below are the different symptoms of bee stings, classified by severity.

For mild stings, the following symptoms may occur but may go away after a couple of hours:

  • Sharp burning pain
  • Red raised welt with white spot at the puncture site
  • Slight inflammation around the affected area

For moderate stings, the symptoms may take a bit longer to disappear, i.e. around 5 to 10 days. Symptoms may include:

  • Extreme reddening of the affected area
  • Swelling

If a person is having a severe allergic reaction to a sting, it is quite easy to tell, as the symptoms are noticeably more severe. These may include:

  • Hives
  • Extreme itchiness
  • Pale, clammy skin
  • Swollen throat
  • Swollen tongue
  • Weak pulse
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting

The above severe reactions are signs of anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening allergic response that need to be treated at the soonest possible time. Thus, it is crucial that a person exhibiting the above symptoms should be taken to the emergency room immediately. A person who has previously suffered and been treated from anaphylaxis caused by a bee sting has a heightened risk of suffering another similar reaction. Thus, it may help to talk to a doctor about possible preventative measures.

Likewise, if a person gets stung repeatedly and there is a noticeable increase in the severity of symptoms with every incident, this should also be brought to the attention of a doctor.

Who to See and Types of Treatments Available

If a person seems to be showing a mild reaction, it is best to wait a couple of hours while observing the affected area. If, over the course of some days, the symptoms seem to be getting worse or the pain does not seem to be subsiding, a GP or family doctormust be consulted.

First aid treatment. When a person has been stung by a bee, the first thing to do is to pull out the stinger, regardless of method, as it is more important to get it out as fast as possible. The stinger is attached to the venom sac, which means that leaving it in the skin for a few seconds longer will increase the amount of venom the body receives.

However, if a person is showing signs of anaphylaxis, he should be taken to the emergency room as soon as possible.

If no severe symptoms are present, simply place a cold compress on top of the affected area to relieve pain and swelling once the stinger has been removed. A mild anesthetic and an antihistamine may be used to relieve pain and itching. Benzocaine may be especially helpful in relieving pain caused by a sting. However, in most cases, a cold compress does the trick.

Home remedies. Other home remedies may be used over the next few days until the sting goes away completely.

  • Toothpaste
  • Clay
  • Garlic
  • Onions
  • Salt
  • Baking soda
  • Menthol, for itching
  • Liquids containing ammonia (which effectively cleanses the skin of the bee venom)

  • Clark RF, Schneir AB. Arthropod bites and stings. In: Tintinalli JE, Kelen GD, Stapczynski JS, Ma OJ, Cline DM, eds. Emergency Medicine: A Comprehensive Study Guide. 6th ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2004:chap 194.

  • Erickson, TB, Márquez A, Jr. Arthropod envenomation and parasitism. In: Auerbach PS, ed. Wilderness Medicine. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2011:chap 50.

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