Most people have difficulty telling the difference between bees, hornets, wasps, and yellow jackets, but the buzz of any of these insects can quickly spark fear of getting stung. Stings are undeniably painful and may cause more severe reactions for some. As long as allergies don't come into play, simple home remedies are enough to treat insect stings.
Bees, hornets, wasps, and yellow jackets are insects that sting, using their stinger to pierce the skin and leave venom behind.
Pain, swelling, and itching after a sting are common, but some initial first-aid measures followed by home remedies can help ease symptoms.
The initial burning pain from a sting will fade within a few hours. However, it may take days for symptoms to go away completely.
Insect stings can cause life-threatening allergic reactions in some people. This is a medical emergency that warrants a 911 call.
Why do stings hurt so much?
There's no mistaking that burning pain that comes with an insect sting. Stinging insects have a sharp, barb-like stinger that punctures the skin. Like getting poked with a needle, this is the first pain point of getting stung.
Immediately after puncturing the skin, the sharp stingers release a substance known as venom. Venom activates the nerves, called pain receptors, that send pain signals to our brains. At the same time, the body reacts to the venom by sending fluid to the area, causing painful swelling. The combination of stimulation to pain receptors and a rush of fluid to the area causes the burning pain associated with stings.
What to do when you get stung
There's no way to eliminate that initial pain, but taking some steps may help reduce pain, swelling, and itching. Try these tips:
- Remove the stinger. Not all insects leave a stinger behind, but if you notice a black dot in the middle of the sting, it may be the stinger. The stinger releases most of the venom within seconds. However, quickly pulling the stinger out may reduce the amount of venom released. You can try removing it by scraping it with your fingernail. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends against using tweezers, as squeezing may release more venom.
- Cleanse the area. Insect stings occasionally cause infection, so washing the area with soap and water is a good idea.
- Apply a cold compress. A cold cloth or an icepack wrapped in a damp cloth applied to the sting can reduce pain and swelling.
- Elevate if possible. If your sting is on your upper or lower extremities, elevating the affected limb can help reduce swelling.
- Use home remedies. A paste made from baking soda and water can help soothe pain and itch. The American Academy of Pediatrics also mentions meat tenderizers and aluminum-based deodorants as substances that may provide relief.
- Take pain relievers as needed. Over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen may help with ongoing discomfort. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist as needed when considering medications.
- Consider treating the itch. The itch after stings can last many days. Topical hydrocortisone cream can effectively reduce inflammation and itch around insect stings.
How long does a bee or other insect sting last?
The initial pain from an insect sting should subside over a few hours, although there may be a less intense ache for longer. The swelling and itching may take several days to go away.
Approximately 10% of people will react more significantly to insect stings. This does not necessarily mean they have an allergy. However, the area of redness and swelling may appear quite large. If the red and swollen area around a sting grows more than 4 inches, this is called a large local reaction. Large local reactions can last up to 10 days. Tell your doctor if you had a large local reaction to a bee sting.
When to be concerned about a sting
Bee stings can quickly cause severe allergic reactions in some people. Allergic reactions can happen even with a first sting. Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening allergic reaction that needs immediate medical attention.
Signs of a serious sting allergy can include:
- Swelling in areas besides the area around the site of the sting
- Shortness of breath, hoarse voice, or difficulty breathing
- Abdominal cramps, diarrhea, or vomiting
- Skin rash or hives
If any of the above symptoms develop after someone is stung by an insect, seek emergency medical help.
Symptoms can progress rapidly, and paramedics can give emergency treatment if needed.
What should I do if my baby was stung by a bee?
If a baby or young child is stung by an insect, as long as there are no signs of an allergic reaction, you can use the tips above to help relieve pain and itch. Talk to your baby's doctor if you have questions or are concerned.
What if I can't get the stinger out?
If you cannot remove the stinger or are unsure if it was left behind, just leave it. Do not dig beneath the skin's surface, which may cause infection. Your body will get rid of it naturally by expelling or breaking it down.
- American Academy of Dermatology Association. How to Treat a Bee Sting.
- Stat Pearls. Hymenoptera Stings.
- UpToDate. Patient Education: Bee and Insect Stings (Beyond the Basics).