Your Guide to Bee Stings and How to Treat Them

Medically Reviewed By Lauren Castiello, MS, AGNP-C
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A bee stings to defend itself if it feels like it is under attack. The venom it injects into you when it stings can be painful, and in some cases may cause an allergic reaction or anaphylaxis. Bee stings can be fatal. There were 1,109 deaths between 2000 and 2017 that occurred in the United States as a result of a sting from a hornet, wasp, or bee.

It is important to try to avoid bee stings when possible. Knowing how to treat a bee sting and reacting quickly in cases of allergic reaction can help reduce the severity of the sting.

This guide provides you with information about how to treat a bee sting, as well as how to recognize symptoms and how to prevent bee stings.

What are the symptoms of a bee sting?

A child in a beekeeping outfit is holding a bee.
Urs Siedentop & Co/Stocksy United

When a bee stings you, it injects venom into you, and this affects you in three different ways:

  • local nerve paralysis
  • loss of blood as capillary permeability increases
  • red blood cell destruction, known as hemolysis

Once the bee injects its venom into your system, your body will react with symptoms including:

  • pain
  • itchiness
  • swelling

You may also experience a delay in symptoms, and these can occur hours after the bee stings you. Symptoms of a reaction delay include:

The following components in the bee’s venom contribute to your symptoms:

  • Melittin is an anti-inflammatory agent that binds to your red blood cells and releases hemoglobin.
  • A-Hyaluronidase divides cell parts, allowing the venom toxins to spread.
  • Phospholipase-A breaks down cells and affects biochemical reactions. It is the possible cause of bee sting pain.

Contact your doctor if you experience a bee sting and the pain persists after a few hours, or if you or somebody else experiences any serious symptoms such as dizziness or loss of consciousness.

Learn more about the signs and symptoms of an allergy emergency.

What does an allergic reaction to a bee sting look like?

An allergic reaction to a bee sting can be fatal. If you have a known bee allergy, it is important to carry an epinephrine device such as an epinephrine pen (EpiPen) with you at all times.

Reacting quickly to an allergic reaction is essential, and recognizing an allergic reaction can help with this. Symptoms of a bee sting allergy can include any combination of the following:

A severe allergic reaction, or anaphylaxis, can occur in just a few minutes following the bee sting. Symptoms can include:

In case of an allergic reaction or anaphylaxis, administer an epinephrine auto-injector when possible, then get immediate medical help.

How do I treat a bee sting?

If you do not have an allergic reaction to the bee sting, it is possible for you to treat it with natural remedies at home. However, in cases of allergic reaction or anaphylaxis, it is important to get immediate medical treatment.

Natural remedies for bee stings

The following steps are guidelines for treating a nonserious bee sting at home with natural remedies.

  1. Remove the stinger: Use a credit card or similar flat object to scrape away the stinger. Do not use tweezers or anything else that can squeeze the stinger, as that can cause more venom to enter your system.
  2. Wash the area: Use soap and water to gently wash the area where you removed the stinger.
  3. Apply a cold compress: Applying a cold compress or ice to the affected area can help reduce swelling. If you experience a swollen face or neck, or swelling in any area other than the sting site, get immediate medical attention, as this can be a symptom of an allergic reaction.

Medication for bee stings

If you find that washing the sting site and applying a cold compress is not enough to alleviate pain, over-the-counter (OTC) medication may help.

Contact your pharmacist to ask about pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, which can help to reduce the pain of a bee sting.

How do I treat an allergic reaction to a bee sting?

There are two steps to treating an allergic reaction to a bee sting: managing the immediate symptoms and preventing future severe allergic reactions.

Immediate treatment

When an allergic reaction occurs, get immediate medical attention. Medical treatments for a severe reaction can include:

  • epinephrine
  • antihistamines
  • corticosteroids
  • IV fluids
  • oxygen

If you have a known bee sting allergy and already have a prescribed epinephrine auto-injector, it is important that you or somebody else administers this before getting immediate medical help.

Ongoing treatment

Once you experience an allergic reaction to a bee sting, your doctor may recommend venom immunotherapy.

During venom immunotherapy, your doctor will administer increasing doses of venom to decrease your sensitivity. This means that you can become more tolerant to the bee venom, reducing your risk of a severe allergic reaction if you get stung again.

Visit our Allergies hub for more articles and information.

How long does a bee sting reaction last?

Pain from a bee sting will typically last around 2 hours. However, swelling might increase over the course of around 24 hours.

In some cases, swelling can last for around 7 days, and any redness or discoloration can last for around 3 days.

Contact your doctor if your symptoms persist or are severe.

When should I contact a doctor for a bee sting?

If you have persistent symptoms that do not go away, contact your doctor or pharmacist for advice.

Get immediate medical help if you experience a severe allergic reaction or anaphylaxis.

It is also important to get medical attention if you have a:

  • large area of around 10 centimeters or more that swells
  • wound infection with symptoms such as pus
  • high temperature or swollen glands
  • bee sting on the mouth or throat, or near the eyes
  • redness or discoloration, swelling, or pain that increases

Learn more about when to see a doctor for an allergic reaction.

How is a bee sting diagnosed?

If you have a reaction but are unsure whether you have been stung by a bee, your doctor or allergist will be able to carry out tests.

Tests for bee stings include:

  • skin-prick test
  • intradermal skin test
  • blood test

During a skin-prick test, your doctor will place a small amount of liquid that contains insect venom on your back or forearm. They will then use a small probe to prick your skin so that the liquid seeps into the skin. You may have had a reaction to an insect sting if raised spots form within around 15–20 minutes.

An intradermal skin test may be advisable if a skin-prick is inconclusive. Your doctor will inject venom under your skin, and signs of a reaction should appear within around 15 minutes.

A blood test can detect immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies, which are antibodies to the venom of insects.

What causes a bee to sting?

Unlike some stinging insects that sting for predatory reasons, a bee will only sting you if it thinks it needs to defend itself.

This means that it is important to not swat at a bee or try to attack it in any way. Remain calm around bees, as they may sting you if they think they are under attack.

Can I prevent a bee sting?

While it is not always possible to avoid a bee sting, you can take steps to try and prevent a bee sting from happening.

Here are some steps that can reduce your risk of a bee sting:

  • Avoid walking outside barefoot or in open sandals, as bees can hide in long grass.
  • Do not drink from open bottles or cans while outside, as the sweet scent can attract a bee to crawl inside.
  • Cover food up at all times when eating outdoors.
  • Do not swat at a bee if it comes near you.
  • Place tight lids on garbage cans outdoors.
  • Try not to use sweet-scented perfumes, colognes, deodorants, shower gels, and other beauty products.
  • Try not to wear bright-colored clothing.
  • Wear gloves and long trousers and sleeves while working in the garden.
  • Use insect repellent when going outdoors.
  • Shut windows and doors when possible.

There are several things you can do if you come across a beehive:

  • Remain calm.
  • Protect your head with a shirt or towel.
  • Run in a straight line.
  • Head for a sealed environment that the bees cannot access.
  • Avoid running in the direction of more people.
  • Do not hide underwater.
  • Avoid taking any more clothes off than necessary.
  • Do not swat at the bees or aggravate them in any way.

It is also important to keep any medication on hand at all times in case you do experience a bee sting. An example could be a prescribed epinephrine device like an EpiPen.

You may also wish to wear a medical alert bracelet or necklace to inform others of your allergy in case a bee stings you and you are unable to get medical attention for yourself.

What kind of bees sting?

Any insect with a stinger might sting you if it thinks it is under attack. However, some bees can only sting you once. For example, while bumblebees can sting multiple times, a honeybee can only sting once in its life, as its stinger detaches after the bee stings.

Do bumblebees sting?

Bumblebees do sting. In fact, unlike the honeybee, a bumblebee can sting multiple times. It is important not to aggravate the bumblebee while it forages and to avoid disturbing the hive.

Do carpenter bees sting?

Female carpenter bees sting, but only if you provoke or aggravate them. Male carpenter bees do not sting.

Do honeybees sting?

A honeybee will sting you if you swat at it or aggravate it while it forages for pollen and nectar. However, a honeybee can only sting once, as it leaves its stinger behind.

Summary

Bee stings cause pain at the site where the bee injects their venom, and in some cases, you may experience a severe allergic reaction or anaphylaxis. If you have a reaction to a bee sting, get immediate medical help.

To treat a bee sting at home, you can remove the sting by scraping it away with a credit card or other similar flat object. Applying a cool compress or ice to the area can reduce swelling, and OTC medications can help with pain relief.

Contact your doctor if you think you have been stung by a bee. They will be able to arrange allergen tests to see whether you react in the same way to venom or if your blood contains antibodies.

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Medical Reviewer: Lauren Castiello, MS, AGNP-C
Last Review Date: 2022 May 23
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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