What happens when a bee stings you?
For most people, a bee sting is just a nuisance. You may experience temporary sharp pain, swelling, redness, warmth, and itching at the sting site, but no serious complications. If you’re allergic to bees, or you get stung multiple times, bee stings can be more problematic. They can even be life-threatening.
When a honeybee stings you, its stinger is released into your skin. This ultimately kills the honeybee. Honeybees are the only type of bee that die after they sting. Wasps and other species don’t lose their stingers. They may sting you more than once.
If a bee stings you, it leaves a behind a venomous toxin that can cause pain and other symptoms. Some people are allergic to this toxin. Mild allergic reactions may cause extreme redness and increased swelling at the sting site.
Severe allergic reactions may cause:
- pale skin
- severe itching
- swelling of the tongue and throat
- difficulty breathing
- rapid pulse
- nausea and vomiting
- loss of consciousness
If you have any signs of a severe reaction to a bee sting, get emergency help. You may be experiencing anaphylactic shock, a life-threatening allergic reaction.
Home remedies for bee stings
Unless you’re allergic to bees or experiencing signs of a severe allergic reaction, you can treat most bee stings at home. If a honeybee stings you, remove the stinger immediately with the edge of your fingernail or the edge of a credit card. This helps curb the amount of toxins released into your skin. Wash the sting site with soap and water. Icing the sting site is the most effective way to reduce venom absorption. It also can also help reduce swelling.
Most home treatments for bee sting symptoms aren’t supported by scientific research. Yet they’ve been passed down for generations. These home remedies may help relieve bee sting symptoms:
Honey may help with wound healing, pain, and itching. To treat bee stings with honey, apply a small amount to the affected area. Cover with a loose bandage and leave on for up to an hour.
A paste made of baking soda and water can help neutralize bee venom to reduce pain, itching, and swelling. Apply a thick layer of baking soda paste to the affected area. Cover the paste with a bandage. Leave on for at least 15 minutes and re-apply as needed.
Apple cider vinegar
Vinegar may also help neutralize bee venom. Soak the sting site in a basin of apple cider vinegar for at least 15 minutes. You can also soak a bandage or cloth in the vinegar and then apply it to the sting site.
It’s unclear why toothpaste can help bee stings. Some people claim that alkaline toothpaste neutralizes acidic honeybee venom. If true, however, toothpaste won’t work on alkaline wasp venom. Either way, toothpaste is an inexpensive and easy home remedy to try. Simply dab a bit on the affected area.
An enzyme in meat tenderizer called papain is also believed to help break down the protein that causes pain and itching. To treat a bee sting this way, make a solution of one-part meat tenderizer and four-parts water. Apply to the sting site for up to 30 minutes.
Wet aspirin tablet
A popular home remedy for reducing the pain and swelling of a bee sting is to apply a wet aspirin or aspirin paste to the sting site. Results of one 2003 study showed that applying aspirin topically to bee stings or wasp stings actually increased redness and didn’t decrease the duration of swelling or pain compared to using ice alone.
Herbs and oils
These herbs have wound-healing properties and may help relieve symptoms of a bee sting:
- Aloe vera is known for soothing the skin and relieving pain. If you have an aloe vera plant, break off a leaf and squeeze the gel directly onto the affected area.
- Calendula cream is an antiseptic used to heal minor wounds and ease skin irritation. Apply the cream directly to the sting site and cover with a bandage.
- Lavender essential oil has anti-inflammatory abilities and can help relieve swelling. Dilute the essential oil with a carrier oil, such a coconut or olive oil. Dab a few drops of the mixture onto the sting site.
- Tea tree oil is a natural antiseptic and may ease bee sting pain. Mix with a carrier oil and apply a drop to the sting site.
- Witch hazel is a tried-and-true herbal remedy for insect bites and bee stings. It can help reduce inflammation, pain, and itching. Apply witch hazel directly to the bee sting as needed.
Traditional treatments for bee stings
Bee stings are traditionally treated with ice or cold compresses to help reduce pain and swelling. Anti-inflammatories such as Motrin or Advil may also help. You can treat itching and redness with hydrocortisone cream or calamine lotion. If itching and swelling are severe, taking an oral antihistamine such as Benadryl may bring relief.
To reduce your risk of infection, don’t scratch the sting site. Scratching can intensify itching, swelling, and redness.
If you’ve had anaphylactic shock after a bee sting in the past, you’ll need to carry an EpiPen with you at all times. If you’re stung again, using the EpiPen may prevent a severe allergic reaction.
When to see a doctor
Most bee stings don’t require a call to your doctor. If you experience any symptoms of a serious allergic reaction, such as difficulty breathing, hives, or dizziness, call your local emergency services. Don’t attempt to drive yourself to the emergency room.
If you used your EpiPen in response to the sting, you should see your doctor. Seek emergency help if you’ve been stung multiple times. Call your doctor if your bee sting symptoms don’t improve after a few days.
The bottom line
Bee stings can be painful, whether you’re allergic to bees or not. If a bee stings you, try to remain calm. Chances are you’ll be just fine. Bee allergies can occur at any time in your life, even if you’ve been stung before and not had an allergic reaction. It’s important to take note of your symptoms.
If you know you’ll be spending time outdoors, take these steps to reduce your risk of a bee sting:
- Don’t walk around barefoot outside.
- Leave beehives alone.
- Don’t wear sweet-smelling perfume, hair products, or body products.
- Don’t wear bright colors or clothes with flowery prints.
- Cover your food.
- Don’t drive with your windows down.
- Don’t drink from open soda cans.
- Stay away from uncovered garbage cans.
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