Take the Sting Out of an Insect Allergy: How to Protect Yourself

Virtually everyone is sensitive or mildly allergic to most insect stings. Just think of the last time a bee, wasp, or yellow-jacket stung you — chances are you experienced some degree of redness, swelling, and itching at the bite site as your body reacted to the toxins left behind in the insect’s venom. 

Although this typical reaction to an insect sting may be irritating, it certainly isn’t serious; in fact, most people are more concerned about how to remove the stinger than they are about having to soothe a red, itchy bump for a few days. 

But for about 5% of Americans, or more than 1.6 million men, women, and children in the United States, moderate-to-severe insect allergies are an everyday reality that can make the warm summer months a little more complicated and a little less carefree. 

Although insect allergies aren’t nearly as common as environmental allergies, food allergies, skin allergies, and drug allergies, people with insect allergies are more likely to experience a severe or life-threatening reaction, sometimes with little or no warning — up to half of all people who experience a fatal anaphylactic reaction to an insect sting have no history of a previous systemic reaction. 

As with all allergies, the best way to prevent an insect allergy reaction is by avoiding the allergen itself. Though this may seem easier said than done in the warm summer months when insect populations are at their highest, there are plenty of ways you can protect yourself from stinging insects when you’re outside. Here’s what you should know. 

Stinging insect allergies

Stinging insects use a thin, needle-like organ (stinger) to inject their targeted victim with a toxic substance called venom. Even for those who aren’t allergic to this venom, insect stings typically cause some degree of redness, itching, swelling, and discomfort that lasts anywhere from a few hours to a few days. 

Being allergic to bees, wasps, hornets, yellow-jackets, or fire ants means your immune system overreacts to the venom from that specific stinging insect. Your particular insect allergy started way back when you received your first sting from that insect, which triggered your body to produce powerful antibodies called Immunoglobulin E (IgE).

The next time you’re stung by the same kind of insect, its venom will interact with the IgE antibodies that are now in your system, triggering an allergic reaction.

For some people who are allergic to stinging insect venom, getting stung can give rise to anaphylaxis, a life-threatening reaction that may cause hives, itching, swelling in the throat or tongue, difficulty breathing, dizziness, and stomach cramps. Severe anaphylaxis can also cause a rapid drop in blood pressure that leads to shock and loss of consciousness.

Preventing insect stings

Given that you can’t predict the severity of your reaction to an insect sting, prevention and protection are always the best course of action.  

First and foremost, learn how to identify the stinging insect that you’re allergic to as well as its home. And if you spot a nest or hive, stay away — stinging insects are much more likely to sting if their homes are encroached on, disturbed, or threatened. You should also make sure that any known nests or hives around your home are relocated or destroyed by an expert.

Whenever possible, avoid spending time in areas that are teeming with flying insects of any kind, as there are sure to be a few stinging insects among them. 

If you’re allergic to bees, for example, it’s a good idea to stay away from gardens and other flower-filled landscapes that attract a healthy bee population. Even though most bees aren’t aggressive, you could inadvertently get stung if one were to become tangled in your hair or trapped inside a loose pant leg.

To keep stinging insects from following or targeting you when you’re outside, don’t wear brightly colored clothing. Instead, opt for light-colored clothing made from a smooth-finished material that would be harder for a stinger to penetrate. It’s also a good idea to wear closed-toed shoes and tighter-fitting clothing that covers as much skin as possible.  

Stinging insects are often attracted to strong smells and odors, including perfume and body odor. Clean, fresh skin and clean clothes are a must, but just be sure to use fragrance-free shampoo, soap, lotion, and detergent, and always skip the perfume.     

Be extra careful when consuming any type of food or drink outside, whether you’re at a picnic, on the outdoor patio of a local restaurant, or walking down the street with your favorite iced beverage in hand. Keep food covered until you’re ready to eat it, and always double-check canned beverages and straws for insects before you put them to your mouth. 

Remember, if stinging insects are flying near you, don’t panic — remain calm, and slowly move away. If you’ve been diagnosed with a severe stinging insect allergy, you should carry an auto-injectable epinephrine device any time you plan to be outside.  

If you’d like to learn other effective ways to prevent insect stings this summer, we can help. Call your nearest Rheumatology and Allergy Institute of Connecticut, LLC office in Manchester or Middletown, Connecticut today, or use the easy online tool to schedule a visit with one of our insect allergy specialists any time. 

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