Wasp stings are common, especially during the warmer months when people are outside for prolonged periods. Wasp stings can be uncomfortable, but most people recover quickly and without complications.
According to the Mayo Clinic, approximately 10 percent of those who are stung by a bee or another insect such as a wasp develop more widespread symptoms called “large local reactions.” Three percent of the total number of people who are stung display severe allergic reactions that can become life threatening (Mayo Clinic, 2010).
Wasps, like bees and hornets, are equipped with a stinger as a means of self-defense. A wasp’s stinger contains poisonous venom that is transmitted to humans during a sting. Wasps can sting more than once during an attack because their stingers remain intact. (A bee can only sting once, as the stinger of a bee becomes stuck in the skin of its victim.) However, even without leaving the stinger behind, wasp venom can cause pain and irritation.
Symptoms of a Wasp Sting
The majority of people without sting allergies will show only minor symptoms during and after a wasp sting. The initial sensations can include sharp pain or burning at the sting site. Redness, minor swelling, and itching can occur too.
You are likely to develop a raised welt around the sting site. A tiny white mark may be visible in the middle of the welt where the stinger punctured your skin. Usually, the pain and swelling recedes within a few hours of being stung.
“Large local reactions” is a term used to describe stronger symptoms associated with a wasp or bee sting. People who have large local reactions may be allergic to wasp stings, but do not experience life-threatening symptoms, such as anaphylactic shock. Large local reactions to wasp stings include extreme redness and swelling that increase for one or two days after the sting.
Most of the time, large local reactions subside on their own over the course of a week or so. Let your doctor know if you have a large local reaction after a wasp sting. He or she may direct you to take an over-the-counter antihistamine medication to reduce your discomfort.
Having a large local reaction after a wasp sting one time does not necessarily mean you’ll react to future stings in the same way. You could have one strong reaction and never show the same symptoms again. On the other hand, a large local reaction could be the way your body routinely responds to wasp stings, and you will have one every time. Try to avoid being stung to prevent these uncomfortable symptoms.
Anaphylaxis Following a Wasp Sting
Severe allergic reactions to wasp stings are referred to as “anaphylaxis.” Only about three percent of the general population is allergic to wasps, bees, hornets, and other stinging insects.
Anaphylaxis occurs when your body goes into shock in response to the wasp venom. Most people who go into shock after a wasp sting do so very quickly.
It is important to seek immediate emergency care to treat anaphylaxis. Symptoms of a severe allergic reaction to wasp stings include:
- severe swelling of the face, lips, or throat
- hives or itching in areas of the body not affected by the sting
- breathing difficulties, such as wheezing
- sudden drop in blood pressure
- loss of consciousness
- nausea or vomiting
- stomach cramps
- weak or racing pulse
You may not experience all of these symptoms after a wasp sting, but you are likely to experience at least some of them after a subsequent sting. The Mayo Clinic explains that people who have gone into anaphylactic shock after one sting are 30 to 60 percent more likely to show the same reaction in the future (Mayo Clinic, 2010).
Many people who have a history of anaphylaxis carry a kit in the event of a wasp sting. Bee sting kits contain epinephrine injections (Epi-Pens) that you can give yourself after a wasp sting. Epinephrine relaxes your muscles and blood vessels, helping your heart and respiration rates return to normal.
Treating Wasp Stings
Mild and moderate reactions to wasp stings can be treated at home. Wash the sting area with water and soap to remove as much of the venom as possible. Apply a cold pack to the wound site to reduce swelling and pain. Keep the wound clean and dry to prevent infection. Cover with a bandage if desired.
If itching or skin irritation becomes bothersome, use hydrocortisone cream or calamine lotion to control the discomfort. Baking soda and colloidal oatmeal are additional ingredients that are soothing to the skin, and can be used in the bath or through medicated skin creams.
Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen, can manage pain associated with wasp stings. Antihistamine drugs, including diphenhydramine and chlorpheniramine maleate, can reduce itching as well. Take all medications as directed to avoid potential side effects, such as stomach irritation or drowsiness.
Severe allergic reactions to wasp stings require immediate medical attention. If you have an Epi-Pen, administer it as soon as symptoms begin. If you have a history of wasp allergies, administer the Epi-Pen as soon as you are stung. Then, call 911.
Treatment for severe allergic reactions to wasp stings can include:
- additional epinephrine to calm your immune system
- intravenous cortisone to reduce inflammation
- cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) if breathing has temporarily stopped
- oxygen, steroids, or other medications to improve breathing
Complications of Wasp Stings
In rare cases, wasp stings can contribute to complications involving the nervous system. A report by Annals of Tropical Medicine and Public Health examined unusual cases in which a pediatric patient experienced muscle weakness, pupil dilation, and motor aphasia following a wasp sting. Motor aphasia is the impairment of speech and writing abilities. The patient’s problems were precipitated by a blood clot that was caused by a severe reaction to a wasp sting (Ann Trop Med Public Health, 2012). These particular complications are extreme and highly unlikely to occur.