Many of us experience pain, itching, and swelling from insect bites and stings. These symptoms are reactions to chemicals in insect venom that irritate the skin and muscle tissue surrounding the bite. However, these symptoms are not dangerous, and most can be treated with over-the-counter antihistamines and acetaminophen.
Allergic reactions to insect venom can be life threatening. Nationwide, more than 50 people die each year from allergic reactions to insect bites and stings. Hives, throat swelling, allergic conjunctivitis, asthma, vomiting, diarrhea, and fainting are symptoms of anaphylactic reactions - severe allergic reactions that affect the respiratory system and other major organs. These types of reactions often need prescription medications to treat these severe symptoms and signs.
Did you know that only six insects in the United States cause allergic reactions? They are the honeybee, yellow jacket, white hornet, yellow hornet, wasp, and in the South, fire ants. Insects that have not been shown to produce allergic reactions include spiders, mosquitoes, horseflies, and chiggers.
There are three precautions you can take to avoid painful insect bites and stings:
1. Try to avoid being stung. Use insect repellent. Avoid wearing perfumes, after-shave, and bright colors. Keep food covered at picnics and campsites. Garbage containers should be tightly closed.
2. Have a detailed back-up plan with instructions about when to use medication and when to seek medical care:
If you’ve been bitten or stung, and you experience pain, itching, and swelling around the site of the sting, you can use an over-the-counter antihistamine and/or acetaminophen to relieve the symptoms.
If you have trouble breathing, are faint, dizzy, and/or have vomiting or diarrhea, seek medical help. See your doctor, or go to an emergency room.
If you have been diagnosed as allergic to insect stings, make sure you always have a venom kit with you. These kits include epinephrine, a hormone that relaxes the muscles around your airways so you can breathe. Wearing a “Medic Alert” tag also can be helpful.
3. Consider immunotherapy. If you have an allergic reaction to an insect bite, chances are good that you will react similarly for many years. If you are stung again within a short period of time, or stung multiple times, then usually the allergic reaction becomes more severe.
Immunotherapy can minimize the life-threatening effects of allergic reactions. After injections of purified venom are repeatedly injected, the allergic reaction becomes minimal. Diagnostic evaluation of venom reactions includes a physical examination, skin tests, and a detailed history documenting your reactions to specific insect stings.
Studies of patients with severe reactions to venom show protection rates exceeding 97 percent after one year of immunotherapy. Usually, three to five years of immunotherapy can ensure lifelong protection from allergic reactions to insect bites and stings.