Bee Sting Treatments

Most bee stings can be treated at home, but some call for urgent care. Here's how to tell the difference.

When you're outside, the low sound of buzzing nearby serves as a gentle warning that it's best to keep your distance to avoid a bee sting.

For the most part, many of us won't anger our insect neighbors, but bee stings can still happen. And whether you've bumped into a stinger yourself or suddenly have a crying child (or partner) on your hands, it helps to know the best bee sting treatments.

Thankfully, bee stings are typically easy to treat. But if you've got a bee sting allergy, it's important to get the proper medical care fast. Here's everything you need to know about how to treat bee stings, plus when to contact a healthcare provider.

Bee Sting Treatments: What to Know, and When to See a Doctor
Getty Images - Design: Alex Sandoval

What Happens When a Bee Stings You?

"When a bee stings you, the sharp end of its stinger gets stuck in your skin, and it releases venom to protect itself," explained Sanjeev Jain, MD, PhD, an allergist and immunologist at Columbia Asthma & Allergy Clinic.

As a result, your immune system responds. This triggers pain, swelling, warmth, and redness around the stinger, Dr. Jain explained.

If you're not allergic to bee stings, minor symptoms should fade within a few hours or days, according to a 2019 article from Frontiers in Immunology. However, "if you are allergic to bee venom, your immune system goes haywire," said Lakiea Wright, MD, MPH, an allergist at Brigham and Women's Hospital. "It perceives the chemicals from that sting as foreign and sends off signals like an alarm bell throughout the body."

When Should You Seek Emergency Help?

If you have any of the below symptoms, seek emergency medical attention immediately, per the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). You could be experiencing anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction that can be life-threatening.

  • Vomiting
  • Trouble breathing
  • Swelling in lips, tongue, or face
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Feeling like your throat is closing
  • Chest pain
  • Rapid heartbeat

How Do You Treat a Bee Sting if You're Not Allergic?

While it's important to address severe allergic reactions quickly, most bee stings are just an annoyance you can treat at home.

Remove the Stinger

The first step is to remove the stinger (which could appear as a small black dot) by gently running your fingernail, a credit card, or a piece of gauze across the skin, said Alison Ehrlich, MD, a dermatologist and member of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America's Scientific Advisory Board. Avoid using tweezers which could squeeze out more venom—which is not something you want—per the AAD.

Keep the Area Clean

After the stinger is removed, you want to be sure to wash the area with soap and water, then apply a cool, damp cloth or cold pack to relieve swelling, according to the AAD.

As much as you might want to, avoid itching the spot. This can trigger even more itchiness and break down your skin barrier, which could lead to an infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC).

Take Medication

If you're feeling the burn, take an over-the-counter pain reliever such as ibuprofen (Motrin), according to the AAD. You can ease itchiness and swelling with hydrocortisone cream, according to the AAD.

After that, if you're still feeling irritated, add an oral antihistamine with diphenhydramine (Benadryl) or chlorpheniramine (Chlor-Trimeton), advised Dr. Ehrlich.

For the next few hours, keep an eye on the sting site. If it becomes redder or more swollen, contact a healthcare provider. You could be having a moderate reaction, which can usually be treated with a quick visit for an exam and self-care at home, said Dr. Ehrlich.

How Do You Treat a Bee Sting if You Are Allergic?

If you know that you're allergic to bees, see a healthcare provider to get an epinephrine auto-injector (EpiPen) and learn how to use it in case of a severe allergic reaction, said Dr. Jain.

The moment you notice signs of a severe reaction to a bee sting, such as hives or trouble breathing, use your epinephrine auto-injector. Then, call 911 immediately for further monitoring and treatment, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA).

Keep in mind: Sometimes, it can be difficult to determine the difference between mild to moderate allergic reactions and potentially serious ones on your own, so contact your healthcare provider if you suspect you could have a bee sting allergy, suggested Dr. Wright. With a physical exam and a review of your medical history, they can figure out whether you're at risk for a severe reaction and advise next steps like allergy testing or shots to potentially dial down your response to bee stings in the future, according to the AAFA.

How Do You Prevent a Bee Sting?

The best bee sting treatment is prevention. You can lower your risk of getting stung in the first place with these tips from the CDC:

  • Stay calm around individual bees and avoid swatting at them.
  • Go indoors to escape swarms of bees.
  • Avoid wearing bright colors and perfumes outside.
  • Wear clean clothes (sweat can anger bees).
  • Pull over and open the window if a bee comes into your car so it can fly out on its own.

Summary

Even though there is a chance of an allergic reaction, bee stings are usually mild and easy to treat. Be sure to remove the stinger, clean the area, and watch out for signs of an allergic reaction.

Also important to remember: Bees aren't the enemy (even though their stings can be painful or dangerous to humans). Bees are hugely important to human life on earth, giving us products like honey and beeswax while acting as crop pollinators to help out the agriculture industry, according to the US Food and Drug Administration. So instead of swatting them away for fear of being stung, it's best to just do your own thing and let them do theirs.

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