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5 tips to treat yellow jacket stings - and signs of a bee allergy

Posted on Sep. 16, 2013 ( comments)

By Jennifer Rea

The September sun is making for a warm evening, and your family has just sat down to a delicious meal on your back porch. Then it happens. That first yellow jacket makes its appearance zipping around the table. Suddenly another one joins the first on its journey from side dish to side dish. Then another. And another. Soon your family is charging inside, plates in hand, to avoid the swarm of hungry yellow jackets set on interrupting your backyard barbecue.

This has been an unusually popular season for yellow jackets. So much so that the Department of Natural Resources has been accused of releasing them as biological control agents. In a recent article, the DNR explained that they are not responsible for the increased amount of yellow jackets disturbing camping trips and barbecues, but rather our wet spring is to blame.

Yellow jacket (or wasp) stings can be a very serious medical situation for some people. We interviewed Dr. Bret Lambert of the Emergency Department at MultiCare Good Samaritan Hospital to find some answers to commonly asked questions regarding yellow jacket stings.

What is the difference between a bee sting and a yellow jacket sting?

Yellow jackets can cause a very severe, sometimes fatal, allergic reaction. However it would take a very large amount of bee stings to cause someone to become ill. Also a yellow jacket can sting a person multiple times, but a bee can only sting once.

How do I know if I’m allergic?

When someone has an allergic reaction to a yellow jacket sting they generally break out in hives and have difficulty breathing. If someone is stung and they begin going into anaphylactic shock, the sting can become fatal within 5 minutes.

For this reason Dr. Lambert encourages patients with a history of many allergies or who have had a previous allergic reaction to a yellow jacket sting to carry an EpiPen. In an emergency situation where a person has been stung and they are going into anaphylactic shock, a shot of epinephrine can be the difference between life and death.

What should I do if I get stung?

If the skin appears red around the site of the sting this is only a local reaction, and a cold compact should decrease the inflammation. If it is red and there is noticeable swelling you should take an antihistamine such as Benadryl in addition to applying a cold compress.

If hives appear at the site of a sting on a child under the age of 16, it is a less serious reaction than if hives were present on someone over the age of 16.

“If hives become visible after a sting, but the person’s breathing is normal, they should make sure to remain in the presence of others aware of the sting. Delayed allergic reactions are not too common, but are very possible, and if that person begins having difficulty breathing they needed to be taken to the hospital immediately,” explains Dr. Lambert.

When should I seek treatment from a doctor?

Those who are allergic to yellow jacket stings still have only a 50% chance of reacting when stung. If you are someone with a history of this allergy, you should have your primary physician refer you to an allergist for desensitization therapy.

“Through a series of allergy shots, an allergist can reduce an allergic person’s chance of having a serious reaction from 50% down to 10%,” said Dr. Lambert.

Five basic tips for treating yellow jacket stings:

  • If you are allergic, always carry an EpiPen when you will be in areas where there could be yellow jackets
  • If someone is stung, hives appear and they are wheezing or having difficulty breathing call 9-1-1 and give them a shot of epinephrine if they carry an EpiPen
  • If you only have a local reaction, treat at home with a cold compact and Benadryl, and watch for any signs of a more serious reaction
  • If hives appear at the sight of the sting, watch very carefully for signs of the person developing difficulty breathing
  • If you are stung, DO NOT PANIC – the vast majority of people who are stung by yellow jackets are not allergic and have a very minor reaction

Learn more about childhood allergy testing and treatment at Mary Bridge Children's Hospital.

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Posted in: Kids' Health
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