Stinging Insect Allergy - A Serious Buzzkill

Summer is here! It's the season for trips to the beach, picnics, and other fun outdoor activities. Unfortunately, swarms of stinging insects will be outdoors catching some rays, too (and likely homing in on that picnic food).

The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI) estimates that up to five percent of Americans are at risk from anaphylaxis (a severe, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction) for insect stings. As with any allergy, the immune system overreacts to a relatively harmless substance; in this case, it's the insect's venom.

"For most people, getting stung results in temporary pain, redness and swelling at the site of the sting. However, for those with allergies to insect stings, it can result in a sudden, severe reaction called anaphylaxis. This may be fatal if not treated immediately," says Clifford M. Tepper, MD, of AAAAI. "Symptoms of anaphylaxis to watch for include: itching and hives over large areas of the body, separate or away from the site of the sting; swelling in the throat or tongue; difficulty breathing; dizziness; stomach cramps; nausea and diarrhea. If you suffer from a stinging insect allergy, you should take extra precautions to avoid being stung."

How do you know if you have a stinging insect allergy?

Unfortunately, most people do not know that they're allergic until after they experience an allergic reaction. If you ever experience such a reaction, get to an emergency room immediately. If the stinger was left in your skin, pull it out immediately to avoid being exposed to more venom.

If you have experienced an allergic reaction in the past, or if think you may be allergic to stinging insects, you should see an allergist for a diagnosis. An allergist can test for specific allergies and may recommend immunotherapy, or allergy shots. Venom immunotherapy is 97% effective in preventing future allergic reactions to stinging insects.

Anyone who is allergic to stinging insects should always carry an epinephrine (adrenaline) auto-injector kit like the Epi-Pen. Epinephrine slows down an anaphylactic reaction and buys more time for proper treatment at a hospital. Various auto-injector cases allow allergic individuals to take their emergency medication on any outdoor adventure.

The most common stinging insects in the U.S. include yellow jackets, honeybees, paper wasps, hornets, and fire ants; all of these insects belong to the Hymenoptera order of insects. At this time, the aggressive fire ants are located only in the Southern U.S. (as far north as Nevada in the West and Washington, DC in the East).

For those who have stinging insect allergies, the only guaranteed method of avoiding a reaction is to avoid getting stung.

The AAAAI offers the following advice to avoid getting stung:

  • Avoid the territory of the stinging insect's nest. They're most likely to sting if their homes are disturbed.
  • Remain calm, quiet and slowly move away from stinging insects. Do not swat them.
  • Avoid brightly colored clothing and perfume outdoors that may attract stinging insects.
  • Be careful when cooking, eating or drinking sweet beverages outdoors. Keep all food and beverages covered until consuming them.
  • Avoid loose-fitting garments that can trap insects between material and the skin.

It's also a good idea to wear shoes and a hat for extra protection when outdoors. See our Anaphylaxis Solution Guide for more information about anaphylaxis.

Note that some people experience allergic reactions to non-venomous insects like flies, fleas, and mosquitoes. Mosquitoes, ticks, and other insects may also carry deadly diseases. Protect yourself yourself from pests with the eco-friendly Herbal Armor, a non-toxic, DEET-free insect repellent.


Originally featured in the June 2007 issue of Allergy Consumer Report.

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