Yellow jackets — properly known as Vespula, Dolichovespula, or Paravespula — are thin wasps with black and yellow coloring and long dark wings. Their stripes often cause them to be confused with honey bees, although bees tend to be rounder in appearance. Unlike bees, which create hives that produce honey, yellow jackets live in nests, which can be found in secluded areas or the ground.
Also unlike bees, which can only sting once since they inject their stinger into you, yellow jackets have the ability to sting you multiple times. When a yellow jacket stings you, it pierces your skin with its stinger and injects a poisonous venom that causes sudden pain. You may also experience inflammation or redness around the sting a few hours after being stung. Fatigue, itching, and warmth around the injection site are also common symptoms for many people.
Once you’ve been stung, it’s not uncommon to experience swelling, tenderness, or redness near the area that’s been stung. Some symptoms warrant emergency medical attention. These may include:
- coughing or wheezing
- problems breathing or swallowing, or having tightness in your throat
- changes to your skin, such as breaking out into hives
- feeling lightheaded or dizzy, or passing out
- vomiting or diarrhea
These may be symptoms of an allergic reaction, or anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that can be life-threatening.
If you’re with someone who is experiencing anaphylaxis, you should:
- Call 911 immediately.
- See if they have an epinephrine (adrenaline) auto-injector (Epi-Pen) and inject them, if needed.
- Try to keep them calm.
- Help them lie on their back.
- Raise their feet about 12 inches and cover them with a blanket.
- Turn them on their side if they are vomiting or bleeding.
- Make sure their clothing is loose so they can breathe.
- Avoid giving them oral medications or anything to drink, and avoid lifting their head, especially if they’re having trouble breathing.
If they’re having trouble breathing, you may need to perform CPR.
- Use an ice or cold pack for the pain. Applying an ice or a cold pack to the affected area can help immediately reduce inflammation and the painful swelling associated with a yellow jacket sting. Wrap the ice or cold pack in a towel or washcloth before applying it to the bite to protect your skin. For best results, leave the ice on the bite for at least 20 minutes.
- Take an antihistamine. The body produces a chemical known as histamine in an effort to protect the body from foreign substances, which is partly what causes the swelling and itching. Taking an over-the-counter antihistamine such as Benadryl right after getting stung can reduce these symptoms.
- Mix up a paste of water and baking soda. The venom that yellow jackets produce is naturally acidic. Baking soda can help counteract the venom naturally. Mix a spoonful of baking soda with water, and then apply with a cotton swab or ball to the yellow jacket sting to help neutralize the venom.
- Use vinegar to reduce itching. Simple vinegar can act as an astringent and keep you from clawing at the bite, which could lead to further infection or inflammation. Just put a little vinegar on a cotton ball and pat on the affected area.
- Sprinkle meat tenderizer on the wound. There’s actually some truth to this old wives’ tale. This powder typically has an enzyme called papain. This enzyme is naturally found in papaya fruit and helps break down the proteins in meat, and it can do the same for the venom of a yellow jacket sting. Rub a tiny bit of meat tenderizer on the bite to see if it helps reduce the pain and swelling.
- In case of emergency, carry an Epi-Pen. If you or a family member is allergic to yellow jacket stings, keep an Epi-Pen handy in your purse or first aid kit. Be sure to talk to your doctor about when to use this powerful prescription drug.
During the warmer spring and summer months, yellow jackets are out in force, feeding off of flowers so they can nourish themselves and their colonies. In the later months, when flowers begin to fade, these buzzing insects may be commonly found scavenging for sugar sources in the trash — or your picked-over picnic. According to Cleveland Clinic, this is when these insects are their most aggressive, making a sting more likely.
Don’t get stung
- If you’re dining outdoors, be sure to dispose of trash or cover food up immediately to keep any lurking yellow jackets away.
- If you’re hiking and come across a bunch of yellow jackets, that’s a sign a nest may be nearby, so try to take an alternate route.
- Swatting at yellow jackets also makes them more likely to attack, so if one lands on you, remain calm and limit any sudden movements.