The Buzz on Insect Stings

We're all familiar with summer movie sequels: Terminator 3, Charlie's Angels, Lara Croft Tomb Raider But have you ever heard of this one — Return of the Flying Stingers? It doesn't require a ticket. Just step into your yard. The stars of the show are disguised as big or small flying objects, with either bright or dark coloration. Yep, I'm talking about a nasty group of flying stingers known as yellow jackets, hornets, wasps and bees. They're currently making an aerial performance in your area of the country and, I can tell you from personal experience, this is a show you want to miss!

The Flying Stinger

I know it doesn't seem likely, but bees and other flying stingers are usually looking for food — not for trouble. But as millions of folks discover each year, getting too close to their nests or annoying these pests in some way can unleash their fury, which often results in a sting (personally, I think these critters need to take a course in anger management). For most people, the common symptoms are burning pain around the bite, redness and itching. But more than 2 million Americans who are allergic to these insect stings may have a very severe, or even life-threatening, allergic reaction.

Recognizing Troublesome Insects

Since most allergies are to stings from bees, hornets, wasps and yellow jackets, it's important to know the difference. So here's the buzz!

  • Honeybees are the most common stingers. They're usually not aggressive (except for some African varieties) unless bothered or stimulated. These bees have hairy bodies, are chunky, and have bright yellow or black markings. Once they sting, they die. Their stinger is often left in the skin of the person or animal they've stung.
  • Yellow jackets are considered the most aggressive of the stinging insects. They're thinner than bees and bright yellow with black markings. Yellow jackets hover around garbage cans, or wherever exposed food is found. They're especially attracted to sugar. These insects can and will sting repeatedly.
  • Hornets have short black bodies with white or yellow markings. They nest in trees or bushes. Like yellow jackets, they too will sting repeatedly.
  • Wasps are either brown, black or red and build their nests in dark areas of buildings or under rafters. They don't have hair. They have narrow waists, which separate their chests from their long, thin lower bodies. They're also known for stinging repeatedly.

What to Do if You Get Stung

The Stinger Has Landed

You've been stung, now what do you do? If Dr. Mom is unavailable, here are some tips:

  • If you experience any breathing or swallowing difficulties, go to the nearest emergency room right away, or call 911. This is especially important if you're stung in the mouth or throat, which can cause swelling of your airways. If you or a loved one have a severe allergy to insect venom, shock can result in less than 10 minutes. Symptoms of a severe reaction include swelling of the face, throat or mouth tissue, rapid heartbeat and hives. (Most people experience only mild reactions, which include pain and warmth at the bite site, as well as itching and mild swelling. These symptoms can be quite uncomfortable, especially for the first 24 to 48 hours.)
  • If you've been stung, remove rings from your fingers. Fingers can become very swollen, and a tight ring can make matters worse.
  • Apply a paste made of water and meat tenderizer (must contain the ingredient papain) directly to the sting to help stop the pain (make sure the stinger is removed from the affected area if it was from a bee).
  • If you're severely allergic, wear a medic alert bracelet and keep a self-care emergency kit (known as Epi-Pen or Ana-Kit) on hand. You can get these from your physician.
  • Since bees and other flying insects are attracted to bright colors, especially floral patterns, try to wear khaki, white or other solid light colors.
  • When going to outdoor areas, particularly picnic areas where insects are present, use unscented lotions, soaps and deodorants. Insects are attracted to smells from perfumes and cosmetics and even deodorants.
  • Don't forget to check your car before you drive off. After all, you don't want to be driving with an unwelcome flying guest.

For other safety tips on how to protect you or your loved ones from flying menaces, speak with your health-care professional.