Bee stings

Most people will be stung by a bee at some time in their lives. Usually a bee sting produces a painful, itchy swelling which may be bothersome for a few days.

But some people will have a more severe allergic reaction. This can range from generalised painful swelling of a whole limb (arm or leg) for a week or more, to an anaphylactic reaction affecting the whole body. Severe bee sting allergy can cause a rash over the body, swelling of the throat or tongue, restriction of breathing, diarrhoea, vomiting, a serious drop in blood pressure and even death.

A bee's sting consists of a sharp barb with an attached bag of poison, or venom sac. The poison from this venom sac will be pumped into the body for several minutes after the bee has departed. It is allergy to this venom that causes the allergic reaction.

a bee sting consists of a sharp barb with a venom sac attached

Treating bee stings

The best way to deal with a bee sting is to scrape it off with a sideways motion using a firm object such as the blade of a knife, a credit card, or even a finger nail. Try not to squeeze the venom sac. However, quick removal of the sting is more important than how you do it. Scraping the sting off immediately will reduce the amount of venom injected. Ice should immediately be applied to the area. Soothing creams and antihistamines may help with the itching.

If the person who has been stung is known to react badly to bee stings a compression bandage should be applied to the arm or leg and the patient encouraged not to move. Medical help should be sought immediately. An injection of adrenaline, such as from an EpiPen, may be needed to overcome the reaction.

Prevention

Bees are attracted by strong smells and bright colours. They are most active on bright sunny days. Honey bees normally only sting when defending themselves. Most bee stings occur when they are stepped on by bare feet. Watch out for thick patches of clover in lawns where children play. Avoid wearing perfume when outside. Never attempt to remove a bee colony or nest yourself. Always call the experts in.

One of the most dangerous places to be stung by a bee is inside the mouth. The resulting swelling can block off breathing with fatal results. This usually happens as a result of having a drink outside and not noticing a bee getting into it. This can easily happen if drinking out of a can. Always use a straw if drinking from a can.

Allergen immunotherapy

It is possible for those who react badly to be de-sensitised to bee stings. Small amounts of purified venom are given at regular intervals over 3-5 years. This will have a 90 per cent chance of reducing the risks of a life-threatening reaction in those at risk.

People at risk of severe allergic reactions to bee stings should wear medical identification jewellery, and carry an EpiPen.

When to see a doctor

  • Seek help immediately by dialling 000 if you are having a serious reaction, feel unwell, or are dizzy or vomiting.
  • Seek help immediately by dialling 000 if you have been stung by multiple bees.
  • If you have had severe reactions before and have been prescribed an EpiPen for bee sting allergy. Use the EpiPen and dial 000.
  • If your bee sting swelling doesn't go away after 48 hours.
Last Reviewed: 5 October 2015
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References

1. ASCIA. Allergic reactions to bites and stings. Updated June 2015. http://www.allergy.org.au/patients/insect-allergy-bites-and-stings/allergic-reactions-to-bites-and-stings (accessed Sept 2015).
2. Mayo Clinic. Bee stings. Updated Feb 2014. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/bee-stings/basics/symptoms/con-20034120 (accessed Sept 2015).
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