Insect Stings: Symptoms, Treatments, and Prevention

Including stings from wasps, hornets, yellow jackets, and bees.

Being outside when it's nice out can mean a lot of things. a picnic in the park, a swim in the springs, and a heartrate-raising trail hike. However, sometimes venomous bugs like bees, wasps, yellow jackets, and hornets can show up to ruin your fun. Wasp stings are some of the most painful of those run-ins, according to MedlinePlus, a resource from the National Library of Medicine. Here, experts weigh in on what you need to know about wasp stings, including symptoms, treatment options, and prevention methods.

Wasp,hornet stings arm woman red swelling

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What Are Wasps and Other Stinging Insects?

Wasps, hornets, yellow jackets, and bees are part of the scientific order Hymenoptera, of which there are 150,000 different species, according to StatPearls. Fire ants are also part of this order of insects. Bees belong to the scientific family of Apidae, while wasps, hornets, and yellow jackets are in the Vespidae family.

You can find wasps, hornets, and bees in all 50 states of the U.S. as well as in Canada, in parts of Europe, North Africa, Asia, and Australia.

Wasps, bees, yellow jackets, and other insects have a barbed stinger that they use for self-defense or when provoked. That stinger contains venom, which is transmitted when you get stung. It's the venom that causes the pain you feel afterward.

Sometimes, the barbed stinger of a bee might get lodged in your skin and be left behind after a sting. This doesn't usually happen with wasps due to their retractable stinger that can sting many times. With exception of the Africanized bee, most bees are docile and will only attack as a defense or when provoked.

Wasps—and other Vespidae family members—have a more aggressive nature. Some will build large nests that can hold many wasps or hornets. Yellow jacket nests are usually located underground or in hedges.


What Does a Sting Look Like?

Wasp stings can either be a painful nuisance or they can trigger a full-blown allergic reaction, depending on the person—so you want to avoid them altogether if you can.

DermNet NZ

Upon first glance, the local reaction of a wasp sting might not look too different than many other bug bites or stings. They're usually swollen and either pink or red, Michael Cameron, MD, an assistant professor of dermatology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, told Health.

Additionally, there's typically a red mark that looks like a pen prick in the center of the sting, Tania Mucci-Elliott, MD, an infectious disease, allergy, and immunology expert at NYU Langone, told Health.

Sting Symptoms

Your sting symptoms depend on whether or not you're allergic to wasps. If you only have a local reaction—the red, swollen patch on the skin that shows up where the sting happened—you may only feel itching or pain at the site, according to UpToDate.

"While the initial symptom at the time of sting can be painful, most people complain of itching afterward," Dr. Cameron said. This usually calms down within a few hours of the sting.

In some cases though, wasp venom can cause a severe, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. Signs of a severe reaction can look like any of the following symptoms, according to MedlinePlus:

  • Swelling in the lips, tongue, mouth, or throat
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Collapse (from shock)
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Hives
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Nausea and vomiting


As long as the person isn't having a severe allergic reaction, stings can be treated at home. "If there are no signs of a systemic allergic reaction, then a doctor would not handle things very differently than what a person can do at home," said Dr. Cameron.

Your first step: Remove the stinger if it happens to get lodged in your skin 0151which isn't usually the case —by carefully flicking it out without squeezing it. According to Dr. Cameron, you should avoid squeezing the stinger with because it can release additional venom.

Once the stinger's gone, wash the site with water and gentle soap, apply a cold compress to keep the swelling down, and try an over-the-counter medication like ibuprofen for pain, said Dr. Cameron. Dr. Elliott also recommended keeping the area elevated and using an analgesic like Cutter Bite MD Insect Bite Relief stick to help with pain and itching.

While most should be able to treat a wasp sting at home, if you've been stung multiple times, going to your local urgent care clinic or another healthcare provider's office might prove beneficial, as an expert might be able to help you remove multiple stingers from your skin.

When To Seek Medical Attention

While most people will only have a minor local reaction to a wasp sting, the possibility of a serious allergic reaction is possible, per UpToDate—especially if someone gets stung by a wasp for the first time.

It's important to keep in mind the signs of a severe allergic reaction (listed above) in this case. "If swelling spreads to areas besides the sting location or if you develop difficulty breathing, nausea, widespread hives, dizziness, you should go to your local emergency department as this would be signs of a systemic allergic reaction," said Dr. Cameron.

There, they may treat you with epinephrine, per UpToDate, which you can also keep on hand in the form of an EpiPen if you have a history of severe allergic reactions.

Even if you aren't experiencing any of the telltale signs of a severe allergic reaction but still feel like something's off, it can't hurt to check in with your healthcare provider.


If you're going to an outdoor picnic, you'll want to limit attracting bees, wasps, and other stinging insects. Consider bringing covers for any food and drink items you'll have. When hiking or working in the yard know the typed of environments where stinging insects like to build their nests. Try to avoid provoking bees and wasps by swatting at them if possible. Also, if you frequently notice wasps in your backyard—or another area near your home—you should regularly check for wasps' nests in that location, Dr. Cameron said.

Additionally, it's important to simply be mindful of where you're hanging out when you're outside. "Try to avoid areas where there will be wasps, like eaves of houses," Dr. Elliott said.

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