Scary Mommy interviewed Dr. Reena Patel to provide in-depth medical insight for this article. Dr. Patel is a board-certified family medicine physician practicing in Orange County, NY. Dr. Patel also brings to the table the perspective of a mother.
Bee stings are one of those things that you tend to forget about until your kid gets one — that is, unless someone you know is allergic to bee stings, and/or you’ve watched My Girl and have been living with the trauma of Thomas J.’s untimely death since the movie came out in 1991 (in which case, SAME). Of course, adults can fall victim to bee and wasp stings too, and we can confirm that they’re still pretty painful when you’re a grown-up. Bottom line? There’s a good chance that, at some point, you’ll need to know how to treat a bee sting. And real talk, you’ll probably have to do so while dealing with a screaming, squirmy, anxious kiddo.
Perhaps you grew up in a household with their own bee sting remedy, or maybe you’ve just had great luck in the insect department and haven’t had to deal with stings before. Either way, here’s what you need to know about how to treat a bee or wasp sting, including what to put on it, how to remove the stinger, and how to tell if it gets infected.
Should I panic?
In most cases, no. According to the Mayo Clinic, the vast majority of bee and wasp stings are mild — meaning that while they may hurt/sting/burn, they are easily treated at home. If the person who was stung appears to be having a severe allergic reaction, that’s another story, and we’ll get to that in a moment. But usually, stings are something you can handle on your own. We’re here to help with that.
What are the symptoms of bee and wasp stings?
Before we get into how to treat the stings, it’s a good idea to get to know some of the symptoms of getting stung (including ones that are a sign you should head for the ER or urgent care). Keep reading for a breakdown of the symptoms of a sting, ordered by the severity of the reaction.
Most bee and wasp sting symptoms fall into this category and tend to go away within a few hours. They include:
- Instant, sharp burning pain at the sting site.
- A red welt at the sting area.
- Slight swelling around the sting area.
Sometimes, people have stronger reactions to getting stung — but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re highly allergic or will have a severe reaction the next time they get stung. Having said that, if you notice that your child’s reactions to stings get more severe each time, it’s definitely something to mention to their doctor. These moderate reactions tend to resolve over five to 10 days and include:
- Extreme redness.
- Swelling at the site of the sting that gradually enlarges over the next day or two.
Severe Allergic Reaction
OK, now we’re in Thomas J. territory. Only a small percentage of people who get stung by a bee or wasp end up having a potentially life-threatening severe allergic reaction, which is known as anaphylaxis. However, this type of severe reaction to bee stings is potentially life-threatening and requires emergency treatment. If the person who was stung is experiencing any of the following signs or symptoms, head straight to the ER (and then discuss a plan with your doctor for dealing with the allergy).
- Skin reactions, like hives, itching, and flushed or pale skin.
- Difficulty breathing.
- Swelling of the throat and tongue.
- A weak, rapid pulse.
- Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea.
- Dizziness or fainting.
- Loss of consciousness.
As an urgent care physician (and mom), Dr. Reena Patel has seen her fair share of stings and knows how scary it can be if someone you love (especially your child) has an anaphylactic reaction to a sting. “This is happening if your child is having difficulty speaking or breathing, is lightheaded or passes out, develops hives away from the site of the sting or facial swelling,” she told Scary Mommy. “This can be life-threatening and needs immediate medical attention. Call 911. They can come quickly with treatment and start it right away.”
How do you treat a bee sting (or wasp sting)?
When someone is having a severe reaction, Patel says that they may receive epinephrine (the medication in an EpiPen), which then requires monitoring in an emergency setting. But again, most bee and wasp stings can be treated at home. Here’s how to do that.
Remove the Stinger
The first thing to do is remove the stinger ASAP. “The faster the better — I’m talking within seconds,” Patel said. “This prevents any more venom from being released into the skin.” No special technique or instrument is needed! “Just get it out,” she added.
Dr. Sam Torbati, co-chair and medical director of the Cedars-Sinai Emergency Medicine Department, stresses that even your fingers or the edge of a credit card will do the trick. Just try to flick the stinger out sideways. And one more thing to note: While honeybees leave their stingers inside your skin, wasps, hornets, and yellow jackets typically take their stingers with them after stinging. However, not everyone who gets stung gets a good look at the responsible insect. If you’re unsure what stung you, be on the safe side and look for the stinger. If you see one, remove it right away.
Treat the Site of the Sting
Now that the stinger is out, the next thing to do is to wash the sting area with soap and water. Also keep in mind that even though the stinger may be gone, the person who was stung was still injected with some amount of venom. In other words, they’ll probably be sore for a while. “Right after a sting, you can have a localized reaction, which includes pain or burning, along with some redness and swelling around the site of the sting,” Patel told us. “This should improve in a few hours.”
Next, apply ice or a cool compress to the sting area to help reduce the inflammation and pain. To help treat your child’s symptoms after a sting, other than a cold compress, Patel recommends giving them children’s Benadryl (or other allergy medication) for itching and swelling at the site, and/or over-the-counter pain relievers like children’s Tylenol or Motrin if necessary. Just be mindful of dosages, she cautioned, saying, “Always follow directions on the package or speak to your children’s doctor if you can.”
And while there are plenty of home remedies for treating stings, you’re better off starting with these doctor-approved techniques.
Can bee and wasp stings get infected?
Yes, they can, Patel confirmed, noting that it’s relatively common. “Quite often, a sting can get infected,” she explained. “We all have bacteria on our skin’s surface that — in conjunction with scratching an itchy site and potential dirt under fingernails — can cause the infection.”
If the site of the sting becomes red, swollen, or starts to spread, then Patel says it’s time to see your doctor. “If your child develops fevers or chills after the sting, along with the previously mentioned symptoms, don’t wait,” she emphasized.
And when in doubt, it’s always best anytime you’re dealing with potential allergies to discuss any concerns with your child’s doctor. Said Patel, “As a mother and a physician, I always urge parents to please follow up with your child’s doctor for any questions about a sting and any symptoms they are experiencing.”
How do you avoid getting stung by a bee?
Bee stings suck and can ruin a day at the park. Keep bad bees at bay (say that three times fast!) by following these tips.
- Avoid using perfume, flower-scented soap, or deodorant. A bee may mistake you for a daffodil. They’re attracted to strong odors in general, so be sure to take a shower before heading outside. (You should especially avoid banana scented smells.)
- Wear close-fitting clothes that cover your arms and legs. This will protect your skin and keep bees out of your clothes.
- Set up your picnic in an open field and far away from flowers.
- Avoid looking like a flower and wear light colors. Don’t put on floral prints and bright shades.
- Throw away your trash (especially sticky candy bar wrappers) after you’re done eating. Bee’s love sweet garbage.
- Keep your car windows closed when driving through woodsy areas. But if a bee ever enters your car, stay calm. Bring the car to a stop and sit still. Open all your windows and wait until the bee buzzes out.
- To keep bees away from your home and backyard, rinse the garbage and recycling lids often so the stickiness or food residue doesn’t attract any bugs.