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Everything you should know about insect stings and bites: possible reactions, how to look for symptoms, and how to properly treat them.

While not a major issue in the fall and winter months when the temperatures drops, during the spring and summer as the air grows more humid, insects come out of hibernation in full force. For some people, this is more of a nuisance or hindrance to outdoor activities but too many, it is cause for apprehension. This apprehension is due to the fact that most of the population will have some sort of reaction to insect stings. This reaction can be mild or moderate, with minimal symptoms to severe enough to require the help of a medical professional.

It can be near impossible to avoid insects unless a person plans to stay indoors during the warmer months but with a bit of planning and knowledge; an allergic reaction to an insect sting does not have to ruin summer.

What is an insect sting allergy?

An insect sting allergy is when an insect stings or bites a human (or a pet) and transfers venom into the bloodstream to cause a reaction. An allergic reaction happens whenever a new agent or chemical is introduced to the body and the immune system recognizes it as a threat. This causes an increase in the production of histamines, causing itchy and watery eyes, dry throats, runny or stuffy noses and swelling in the mucus membranes of the face. Swelling can also occur over the body in the form of raised welts of skin, also known as hives.

An insect will transfer venom through a stinger or through their mouths to the skin, leaving red and swollen mark behind. The most common reaction for insect stings is those given by mosquitos and sandflies, as they transfer venom will removing blood from a human or animal. They are also one of the top carriers of diseases and viruses.

What insects can cause a reaction?

Anyone who experiences an insect sting or bite will have some form of reaction at the site but generally, it is mild redness with either a burning or itching sensation. While some people who experience a more intense reaction has those due to their chemical makeup, others experience more severe reactions due to the type of insect that administered the sting or the bite.

There are approximately five insects that will leave more venom in the system than others who are typical in North America. What are these insects? They are:

  • Yellow Jackets: these insects are black with yellow markings and are typically found underground or in piles of wood. Can be found in various climates.
  • Honeybees: these insects are fuzzy with brown and yellow markings. They are typically found in their hives located in trees or piles of junk.
  • Paper Wasps: these insects are slender in body with black, red and brown markings. They can be found in their hives or woodpiles.
  • Hornets: these insects are black or brown with white markings. They can also have orange or yellow markings and they can be found within their nests in trees.
  • Fire Ants: these insects are reddish-brown ants that live in mounds of dirt in warmer climates.

Take caution to avoid areas where there might be one more than species of insects and always wear long sleeves and pants while hiking in the woods. If an allergy to insect stings has already been proven by a medical professional, take an antihistamine before heading outdoors to counteract any potential reactions before they happen. If an antihistamine is to be taken before participating in an outdoor activity, look for a product that offers non-drowsy formulas.

Symptoms

The most common symptom of an insect sting, as previously mentioned, is redness and slight swelling at the site of the sting itself. People may experience an itching sensation on the welt left behind by the insect’s stinger and venom, but it generally goes away within a couple days.

The more severe allergic reactions can include all or some of the following symptoms:

  • Difficulty breathing –wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath
  • Severe pain that leaves the area of the sting numb or tingling
  • Swelling of the face, throat or tongue
  • Abdominal pain and stomach cramping
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea and acid reflux
  • Dizziness and grogginess

These symptoms all point to a severe reaction to an insect sting also known as anaphylactic shock. If anaphylactic shock is suspected in any way, medical attention is needed ASAP. This type of reaction can become fatal if the breathing passages aren’t cleared and that is done by an EPI-Pen or a similar medication. Additional medication for pain and stomach issues may be required depending on the severity of the reaction.

Treatment

When someone experiences an insect sting or bite, even if there isn’t any visible reaction, it is recommended that the site is cleaned using an antibacterial soap or body wash to remove any traces of venom from the skin. Once the site is cleansed, people may want to cover the area with hydrocortisone cream to reduce potential itching and swelling. Calamine lotion can also reduce the itching and swelling of the skin, allowing for the sting to heal without any interference.

If a rash or hives begin to form, antihistamines can be taken as directed by a pharmacist or the packages information leaflet. Some antihistamines can cause drowsiness, so caution is urged if there will be the operation of a motor vehicle or if someone is planning to go to work or in public. More serious allergic reactions to insect stings will require medical attention, either from a family doctor or emergency room physician. 

Conclusion

It is near impossible to avoid insects on a daily basis because the outdoors is their home and we are intruding in it. To avoid potential reactions, people need to practice self-awareness and common sense in the terms of avoiding insect nests and hives, wearing the proper clothing during outdoor activities, reducing the amount of perfume and scented products worn (as these attract insects) and simply know what treatment will work best if an insect sting is experienced.

Insect repellent and citronella candles can also reduce the number of insects surrounding the area where people are congregating outdoors during those long summer nights and provide a more peaceful atmosphere for barbecues or get together.

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