Bee Sting Treatments: What to Know, and When to See a Doctor
Most bee stings can be treated at home, but some call for urgent care. Here's how to tell the difference.
When spring arrives, 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 can make it through the summer without angering our insect neighbors, but bee stings 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, they're 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 doctor.
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," explains Sanjeev Jain, MD, PhD, a board-certified allergist and immunologist at Columbia Allergy, tells Health.
As a result, your immune system responds with cells that act that protect your body to keep the venom from spreading. This triggers pain, swelling, warmth, and redness around the stinger, he explains.
If you're not allergic to bee stings, those minor symptoms should fade within a few hours or days, according to the Mayo Clinic. However, "if you are allergic to bee venom, your immune system goes haywire," Lakiea Wright, MD, MPH, a board-certified allergist and associate physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, tells Health. "It perceives the chemicals from that sting as foreign and sends off signals like an alarm bell throughout the body."
If you've been stung by multiple bees or 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.
- Hives beyond the sting site
- Severe itching
- Nausea or vomiting
- Trouble breathing
- Swelling in lips, tongue, or face
- Coughing or choking sensation
- Chest pains or rapid heartbeat
- Loss of consciousness
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.
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 piece of gauze across the skin, Alison Ehrlich, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and member of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America's Medical Scientific Council, tells Health. Avoid using tweezers which could squeeze out more venom—which is not something you want—per the AAD.
Although there's a slew of home remedies used as bee sting treatments from honey to apple cider vinegar, doctors say the best method is to wash the area with soap and water then apply a cool, damp cloth or cold pack to relieve swelling, per the Mayo Clinic.
As much as you might want to, avoid itching the spot, as this can trigger even more itchiness and break down your skin barrier—opening you up to infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC).
If you're feeling the burn, take an over-the-counter pain reliever such as ibuprofen (Motrin). You can ease itchiness and swelling with hydrocortisone cream or calamine lotion. After that, if you're still feeling irritated, add an oral antihistamine with diphenhydramine (Benadryl) or chlorpheniramine (Chlor-Trimeton), advises 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, says Dr. Ehrlich.
How do you treat a bee sting if you are allergic?
If you know that you're allergic to bees, see a doctor to get an epinephrine auto-injector (EpiPen) and learn how to use it in case of a severe allergic reaction, says Dr. Jain. Take note of the expiration date and be sure to replace it regularly, per the Mayo Clinic.
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, suggests the 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 doctor if you suspect you could have a bee sting allergy, suggests 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.
In the meantime, the best bee sting treatment is prevention. You can lower your risk of getting stung in the first place with these tips from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
- Stay calm around individual bees and avoid swatting at them.
- Run into a car or building to escape swarms of bees.
- Avoid wearing bright colors and perfumes outside which can attract stinging insects.
- Cover food and trash cans outside.
- If a bee comes into your car, pull over and open the window to let it fly out on its own.
- Leave bee hive removal to the professionals.
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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