Bee Stings

Buzz. Prick. Ouch.
Were you stung by a bee?

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Understanding bee stings

Bees are powerful pollinators and an essential part of our ecosystem. But they can still be a buzzkill – if you get stung. 

Bee stings are incredibly common, and spending any amount of time outdoors puts you at risk of getting stung. When a bee stings it injects its stinger into your skin, releasing venom as it does. This venom contains a protein that irritates your skin cells and immune system, resulting in painful swelling. If your reaction is mild, discomfort can usually be treated at home. However, a bee sting allergy can lead to a potentially fatal reaction called anaphylaxis. There are about 60 reported deaths from bee stings each year, and men make up about 80% of that total.

So, what do you do for a bee sting? When stung, it’s most important to determine whether or not you’re having an allergic reaction by monitoring your symptoms and taking immediate action. 

How long does a bee sting last?

Mild symptoms will last only a few hours. Moderate symptoms may last up to 10 days. 

What are common symptoms?

Bee sting symptoms range from mild to severe, and this determines how long a bee sting will hurt. It’s important to always monitor bee stings as you can have an allergic reaction even if you’ve only experienced mild symptoms in the past. 

Mild Reaction Symptoms: 

  • Immediate sharp, burning sensation at the site of the sting
  • A bee sting will look like a red welt with slight swelling 
  • Improvement of symptoms within a few hours

Moderate Reaction Symptoms: 

  • Swelling increases over the course of a few hours or days
  • Pain that lasts more than a few hours
  • Improvement of symptoms after 5-10 days

Severe Reaction Symptoms (anaphylaxis): 

  • Hives, itching
  • Flushed or pale skin
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Weak or quickened pulse
  • Digestive issues like nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Unconsciousness
  • Swelling of the throat and tongue
  • Low blood pressure

If you are experiencing any symptoms of a severe reaction to a bee sting, it is imperative to seek medical attention immediately by calling 911

Once a honeybee stings with its barbed stinger, the stinger will break off and it will die. Wasps, bumblebees, yellow jackets, and hornets do not have a barb. They can retract their stingers, allowing them to sting multiple times. 

If you encounter multiple stings, the amount of venom in your system may trigger a toxic reaction, even if you are not allergic. If you experience symptoms of a toxic reaction, it’s important to seek medical attention, especially if you have existing heart or breathing problems. Symptoms include:

  • Digestive issues like nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • Headache
  • Vertigo (a feeling of spinning)
  • Convulsions
  • Fever
  • Dizziness or fainting

How to prevent bee stings?

The best way to avoid being stung is to stay at a safe distance from bees. If you’ll be spending time outdoors, prevent yourself from attracting bees by steering clear of:

  • Sweet-smelling perfumes or body products
  • Vibrant, brightly-colored clothing and clothing with floral prints
  • Sweetened drinks in open containers 

Stay alert when approaching areas with a lot of bee traffic, like garbage cans or known hives. 

If you do encounter a bee, beehive, or swarm of bees, it’s important to remain calm. Swatting is threatening to bees, which can lead to further aggravation. Walk or run away from the bees as quickly and calmly as possible. If you’re being chased by bees, cover your face to protect your eyes and run to shelter indoors, or inside of a car. It’s not a good idea to jump into water to escape bees, as they will often wait above the water to continue their attack as soon as you emerge. 

Treatment Options: What to do after a bee sting

To ensure bee sting relief, first, remove the stinger (if present). If you’re stung by a honeybee, the barb at the end of its stinger will break off and may be stuck in your skin. The longer this stinger is present the more venom may enter your body, heightening your risk of allergic reaction.  Don’t attempt to squeeze the skin around the stinger as this can drive it deeper. It’s also important not to use tweezers, as pinching the stinger can actually release even more venom. Instead, gently scrape across the skin with a fingernail, or wipe with gauze, to remove the stinger. 

What to put on a bee sting

What helps a bee sting will depend on your symptoms. If your reaction to the sting is mild, there are home remedies to try that can lessen any discomfort. 

  • Wash thoroughly with soap and water
  • Apply a cold compress to reduce bee sting swelling
  • Don’t scratch the sting – this can further irritate your skin and increase the risk of infection

If your symptoms don’t ease within a few hours, you may consider some other options: 

  • Pain relievers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen 
  • Hydrocortisone cream or calamine lotion to reduce itching, redness, and swelling
  • Oral antihistamines like Benadryl or chlorpheniramine
  • Apply a paste of baking soda and water to reduce pain or itching

If your mild symptoms worsen, check in with a doctor. They may recommend meeting with an allergist for immunotherapy to protect against future stings. 

If your reaction is severe, call 911. It’s imperative to take immediate action as anaphylactic shock can be fatal.

If you’ve been prescribed an epinephrine auto-injector (EpiPen or Auvi-Q), then you should use that immediately as directed. 

Bee safety can save lives.  “Bee” aware of your surroundings to avoid stings, and if you are stung, monitor any reactions so that you can take quick, appropriate action. 

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