Insect Stings and Allergic Reactions

Avoiding insect stings may not always be possible. However, knowing how to respond should your child experience an allergic reaction from an insect sting, could provide more peace of mind in the event of an emergency.

Insect stings that most commonly cause allergic reactions

Insects that are members of the Hymenoptera family most commonly cause allergic reactions. These include the following:

  • Bees

  • Wasps

  • Hornets

  • Yellow jackets

  • Fire ants

What are the symptoms of an allergic reaction to an insect sting?

For most children who are stung by an insect, the reaction is short-lived, with redness and swelling followed by pain and itching. Generally, the reaction lasts only a few hours, although some may last longer. For others, however, allergic reactions to these insect stings can be life-threatening. This severe reaction is a medical emergency that can involve organ systems throughout the body. The reaction is called anaphylaxis, or anaphylactic shock, and can include severe symptoms such as the following:

  • Itching and hives over most of the body

  • Swelling of the throat and tongue

  • Difficulty in breathing and tightness in the chest

  • Dizziness

  • Headache

  • Stomach cramps, nausea, or diarrhea

  • Rapid drop in blood pressure

  • Shock

  • Loss of consciousness

  • Hoarse voice or swelling of the tongue

Immediate medical attention is required.

Can insect stings be prevented?

Avoidance of insects is the best preventive measure. Suggestions for helping your child avoid insect stings include the following:

  • When outdoors, make sure your child is careful if eating or drinking uncovered foods or beverages, which can attract insects.

  • Keep your child from going barefoot. He or she should wear closed-toe shoes when walking in grassy areas.

  • When playing outdoors, make sure you and your child watch for insect nests in trees, shrubs, and flower beds. Other areas in which to use caution include swimming pools, woodpiles, under eaves of houses, and trash containers.

Treatment for insect stings

Specific treatment for insect stings will be determined by your child's doctor based on the following:

  • Your child's age, overall health, and medical history

  • Extent of the reaction

  • Your child's tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies

  • Expectations for the course of the reaction

  • Your opinion or preference

  • If your child has had a serious reaction to an insect sting, make an appointment with an allergist. An allergist can perform skin testing, diagnose your allergy, and determine the best form of treatment. In some cases, insect venom allergy shots (or immunotherapy) are very effective. 

Suggestions for immediate treatment for highly allergic children, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, include the following:

  • When possible, immediately remove the stinger, and scrape over the area with a fingernail. However, do not squeeze the area, which may force the venom into the body.

  • Raise the affected arm or leg. 

  • Apply ice or a cold compress to reduce swelling and pain. 

  • Clean the area with soap and water. 

  • Apply a topical steroid cream to the site of the sting to relieve itching. 

  • Give your child a dose of an oral antihistamine, like Benadryl, to also relieve itching. 

  • An emergency treatment kit should be kept nearby at all times. Consult your child's doctor about what it should include.

  • Seek emergency care for your child as soon as possible.