Two million Americans suffer from stinging insect allergies. Insect bites can be dangerous: Every year approximately 500,000 Americans seek emergency room treatment for insect bites and stings. Stings cause 40 to 150 deaths in the United States every year, and those figures may be a conservative estimate.
Yellow jackets, wasps, hornets and bees account for the bulk of insect allergies, with fire ants in the southern States also taking their toll. Summer, of course, is the most dangerous time for insect bites: Nests can contain populations of over 60,000 insects.
Insect Allergies: Stinging Insects to Watch For
If you have an allergic reaction to the venom of a particular insect, experts estimate that you have a sixty percent chance of being allergic to other insects as well. Bees, wasps, hornets, and yellow jackets should be avoided as much as possible.
Ticks, biting flies and some varieties of spider may also cause allergic reactions, although incidents of reactions from these species are infrequent. Mosquito bites can cause a reaction, although a serious allergic reaction to mosquito bites is uncommon.
Itching, Hives and Other Symptoms of Insect Bites
A normal reaction to bee stings or other insect bites is fairly mild. The immune system reacts to the venom in the sting, resulting in some pain, itching, swelling and redness around the sting or bite.
In more severe reactions, swelling and hives spread beyond the original reaction site. Bee stings may result in swelling and itching over a large area of the body, for example, or a mosquito bite can swell up to the size of a grapefruit. Such reactions may last for several days. As alarming and discomforting as such symptoms may be, they are not usually cause for concern. An important exception, of course, is any swelling around the mouth, throat or nose that restricts breathing.
The most severe reaction to stinging insects is anaphylactic shock, or anaphylaxis. Symptoms include hives and skin rashes in areas of the body where the bee sting or other bite occurred. The allergy sufferer may experience tightness around the chest, and dyspnea (difficulty breathing). The throat may swell, and the person’s voice may become hoarse. Dizziness may occur as the victim’s blood pressure plummets. Left untreated, anaphylaxis can result in loss of consciousness and death.
Treatment: Calamine Lotion to Venom Injections
Treat a “normal” reaction to bee stings or other insect bites by disinfecting the sting or bite site and icing the area to provide relief. If the stinger is embedded in the skin, remove it by “scraping” or brushing it off with a flat edge (hard plastics are useful for this). Pulling on the stinger may release more venom into the skin. The itchiness of mosquito bites and bee stings can be combated with calamine lotion.
In cases where the wound has swollen to an unusual size, disinfect and ice the wound as you would a less serious bite. Antihistamines or steroids may be prescribed to treat swelling, and generally reduce discomfort until the swelling subsides. Check with your doctor.
Venom Immunotherapy: Life threatening allergies to insect stings can be treated with venom immunotherapy. Immunotherapy works by injecting steadily increasing amounts of insect bite venom into the body. Over time, the body builds up an immunity to the allergen.
Know Your Enemy
If you suffer from serious insect bite allergies, knowing how stinging insects behave can make your life safer. Bees, wasps and other insects are often attracted to sweet fragrances: Soft drinks, hair spray and open garbage cans will attract insects. While insect repellant may help with mosquitoes, it doesn’t deter stinging insects.
Learn where insects make their nests. Yellow jackets nest in walls and on the ground. Wasps and hornets favor bushes, trees and overhanging areas on buildings. Avoid walking over grass barefoot: You can easily step on a wasp or foraging bee. And avoid floral patterns on clothing as bees have been known to mistake bright patterns for flowers.
While cockroaches don’t bite, don’t sting and aren’t venomous, many people are allergic to them, or more accurately their fecal matter. If you suffer from chronic or repeated ear or sinus infections, a stuffy nose, asthma, or skin rash, talk with your doctor about evaluating your sensitivity to cockroaches and other common indoor allergens.