Bee Stings

Bee stings are quite common and although most people recover from a sting very quickly, others can be seriously affected. Bee stings differ from other insect stings, which is why the body may react differently to them. There are different species of bee, including bumblebees, honey bees and sweat bees.

Bees only tend to sting if they feel that the hive they are protecting is under threat or the bee itself feels threatened. A bee may also sting you accidentally if you step on it or if you stumble across a hive.

What happens when a bee stings you?

Bees usually sting people as a form of defence and when it stings you, it leaves the sting in the skin and the venom continues to pump into the body. It is therefore very important to remove the sting as quickly as possible, to reduce the amount of venom pumped into the body. Bee venom is toxic (the main toxin is called melittin) and it has three main effects on the body; these include:

  • Paralysis of the nervous system (neurotoxic)
  • Increased permeability of capillaries – small blood vessels – which can cause blood pressure to drop (hemorrhagic)
  • Destruction of red blood cells (haemolytic)

Most people think that bees automatically die once they have stung, though this is not always the case. In the majority of cases, however, bees do die once they have stung you, as they suffer extensive damage to their bodies as a result of leaving their sting within your skin.

Symptoms of a bee sting

Most people develop a raised, inflamed mark, known as a weal, on their skin. This is common but it may be a symptom of an allergic reaction. Other symptoms associated with bee stings include:

  • Itchy, irritated skin
  • Soreness and redness around the sting

Symptoms of bee stings tend to subside fairly quickly and if you experience pain or discomfort, you can take painkillers and numb the wound with ice.

Allergic reactions to bee stings

Occasionally, people suffer an allergic reaction to bee stings. This occurs when the body reacts to the sting and releases chemicals, such as histamine, to try and fight off the allergen. There are two types of allergic reaction: localised and systemic reactions.

Localised allergic reactions affect the area around the sting, while systemic reactions affect systems in the body and require emergency medical attention. In rare cases, a bee sting can prompt anaphylactic shock, which is a very severe reaction to an allergen and should always be treated as a medical emergency. Symptoms of anaphylactic shock include:

  • Swelling and itching in other parts of the body
  • Flushed or blotchy, red skin
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Wheezing
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Nausea and sickness

If you know that you are allergic to bee stings, it is a good idea to alert the people around you and you may also consider wearing a bracelet, which contains this information. People with severe allergies should carry an EpiPen (a shot of adrenaline) with them at all times.

How are bee stings treated?

It is important to remove the sting as quickly as possible. If a bee has stung you it will probably die shortly afterwards, unlike wasps and hornets, which don't die and can sting you multiple times. You can remove the venomous sac by scraping it off using your fingernails or something with hard corners, such as a bank card. Many natural remedies have been put forward as bee sting cures, but there is scepticism surrounding these treatments and doctors tend to advise the following treatment plan:

  • Remove the sting
  • Wash the affected area
  • Place a cold flannel over the sting
  • Avoid scratching the wound (if you have a child and they have been stung, try cutting their nails to prevent them from scratching the wound)
  • If pain persists take painkillers and apply ice to the wound (always wrap ice cubes or bags of frozen vegetables in cloths or towels before applying them to the skin to prevent damage)
  • Use antihistamine cream to try and ease swelling

Preventing bee stings

In some cases it may be impossible to prevent stings, but there are guidelines you can follow to help reduce your risk of being stung:

  • If you do encounter a bee, try to walk away calmly and do not wave your arms around or make lots of noise
  • Avoid large areas of flowers and never disturb a hive. If you do disturb a hive by mistake, walk away and try to stay calm
  • Use insect repellent if you are planning to stay outside for long periods of time
  • Cover sweet foods and drinks if you are eating outside
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