Don't like bees? You have reason to be afraid, especially this time of year. The American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI) says insect sting allergies are increasing, affecting five percent of the population.
Every year, as many as 50 people die from insect stings, according to Dr. David Golden, whose report on insect stings appeared Thursday in Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Half of fatal reactions happen to people who've never been stung before.
Ray Shaw, former president of Dow Jones & Company and president of The Wall Street Journal, died in July 2009 at age 75 after being stung by a wasp. He previously had no known allergy to bee stings.
Golden, chair of the ACAAI's Hypersensitivity Committee, said these deaths can often be prevented if the person is treated with venom immunotherapy, or VIT.
VIT to the Rescue
In fact, venom immunotherapy can protect people from insect stings for many years, even if their reactions tend to be less severe.
Golden said that while these low-dose shots do not always cure insect allergies, they can almost always prevent severe reactions, and they usually provide long-lasting immunity, even after the treatments stop.
Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved venom immunotherapy in 1979, it is not widely used by doctors or hospitals, Golden told Healthline. “It's so frustrating for us.”
He stressed that people who have been told they may have dangerous reactions to stings should see an allergist and get tested. Most insurance plans pay for VIT, although there may be a higher deductible or co-pay, Golden said.
More Than Just an Epi-Pen
Many people who suffer bee sting reactions end up in the emergency room, where they are treated with a shot of epinephrine, also known as adrenaline, and given an EpiPen containing more epinephrine to carry with them in case they get stung again.
That's what happened to LeAnn Carr of Rock Island, Ill., who suffered a bee sting more than 10 years ago. At first, the sting didn't bother her much, but over the course of an hour she felt a tingling sensation travel up from her leg, where the sting occurred, to her throat. She became worried and tried to relax in the bathtub, where she passed out.
Her husband later found her and called for help. Paramedics revived her and she was taken to the hospital, but she was never told about venom immunotherapy, and still carries an EpiPen at all times.
Golden said Carr's story is typical. Dr. David Graft, an adjunct professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota Medical School in Minneapolis, agreed. “Most of the patients I see for insect sting allergy also have not heard of allergy shots for venoms, so we need to do a better job of educating the public, too,” he told Healthline.
Fire ants stung Tracey Boeye of Atlanta on three occasions during the 1990s. Each time, she ended up in the emergency room where she received epinephrine shots. The last time, however, her throat began to swell shut and she believes she could have died. So, she went to an allergist and received the prophylactic shots for several years. She has not had an incident since.
She recalled the horror of being stung the second time, before the advent of cell phones, knowing she needed help while on the road. “I started popping Benadryl and was literally driving 90 mph down I-55 hoping to get pulled over. No luck.”
Protect Yourself from Deadly Stings
The ACAAI offers these tips for avoiding stings from late-summer insects:
- Cover up with pants and long-sleeved shirts when gardening or working outdoors.
- Avoid walking barefoot in the grass.
- Be on the lookout for insects when eating or drinking anything sweet.
- Don't wear sweet-smelling perfumes, hairsprays, or deodorants when heading outdoors.
- Avoid brightly colored clothing with floral patterns.