Wasp stings are common, especially during the warmer months when people are outside for longer periods of time. Wasp stings can be uncomfortable, but most people recover quickly and without complications.
Wasps, like bees and hornets, are equipped with a stinger as a means of self-defense. A wasp’s stinger contains venom (a poisonous substance) that’s transmitted to humans during a sting. While a bee can only sting once because its stinger becomes stuck in the skin of its victim, a wasp can sting more than once during an attack. Wasp stingers remain intact.
However, even without a lodged stinger, wasp venom can cause significant pain and irritation.
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, swelling, and itching can occur as well.
Normal local reactions
You’re 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 several hours of being stung. Unless you’re allergic, most bee stings can be treated at home.
Large local reactions
“Large local reactions” is a term used to describe more pronounced symptoms associated with a wasp or bee sting. People who have large local reactions may be allergic to wasp stings, but don’t experience life-threatening symptoms, such as anaphylactic shock. Large local reactions to wasp stings include extreme redness and swelling that increases for two or three days after the sting. Nausea and vomiting can also occur. Find out what’s happening in your body during an allergic reaction.
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. They may direct you to take an over-the-counter antihistamine medication (such as Benadryl) to reduce your discomfort.
Having a large local reaction after a wasp sting one time doesn’t 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. Try to avoid being stung to prevent these uncomfortable symptoms.
The most severe allergic reactions to wasp stings are referred to as anaphylaxis. 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’s 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 or gasping
- 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’re likely to experience at least some of them after a subsequent sting. According to the Mayo Clinic, 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.
If you have a history of anaphylaxis, carry a kit in the event of a wasp sting. “Bee sting kits” contain epinephrine injections (EpiPens) 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. Anaphylactic shock is a medical emergency that requires immediate treatment. Learn more about this dangerous condition, including what to do if someone you know is experiencing it.
Mild to moderate reactions
You can treat mild and moderate reactions to wasp stings at home. While treating your sting at home, you should:
- Wash the sting area with soap and water 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.
Use hydrocortisone cream or calamine lotion if itching or skin irritation becomes bothersome. Baking soda and colloidal oatmeal 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, can reduce itching as well. Take all medications as directed to avoid potential side effects, such as stomach irritation or drowsiness.
You should also consider getting a tetanus shot within several days of the sting if you haven’t had a booster shot in the last 10 years. First aid differs based on what type of creature has bitten or stung you.
Severe allergic reactions to wasp stings require immediate medical attention. If you have an EpiPen, administer it as soon as symptoms begin. If you have a history of wasp allergies, administer the EpiPen 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
- cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) if breathing has temporarily stopped
- oxygen, steroids, or other medications to improve breathing
In rare cases, wasp stings can contribute to complications involving the nervous system.
A report published in the 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. These particular complications are extreme and highly unlikely to occur.