Eek! I got stung! What should I do now?

Getting stung is 1 part pain, 1 part shock, and 8 parts panic. Having a bad reaction (the type that can put you in the hospital or lead to death) is very rare. Stings hurt (some more than others - read more on the "Schmidt Pain Index"). Stings swell (some quite larger than others). And stings ITCH (this is usually the most annoying part of getting stung). See below for examples of normal/safe types of reactions and when to seek medical advice.

If You Get Stung

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  • If you are with someone, tell them immediately that you think you were stung. Make sure one of you is prepared to call 911 if you begin to have serious symptoms.
  • If you are alone, call someone and tell them you will call them back in an hour if all is fine.
  • If you start to see hives in a place that is not near where you were stung (this is referred to as a systemic reaction) and you have access to Benadryl or other type of allergy medication, take it.
  • Find a quiet place that you can relax. You just got stung, your anxiety is up, and if you have hives, your anxiety is higher. If you don't relax, you won't know whether the next symptom is hyper-anxiety or anaphylaxis (link to Wikipedia page on Anaphylaxis).
  • Drink some water.
  • If you start to feel like you have a scratchy throat, itchy nose, or cough, those are signs you are going into Analphylaxis. Go immediately to the hospital and/or call 911. At this point, unless your doctor has recommended another course of action, a shot of epinephrin must be administered. If you have other allergies, perhaps you already carry an EpiPen (the official EpiPen website has A LOT of useful tips).

Sting Season

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End of summer is sting season. Ground nesting yellowjacket wasps have very large colonies (of over 10,000 wasps!) - so imagine how many wasps you upset when you run over the underground nest with a lawnmower! Honeybees also have large colonies, and everyone is looking for food. You might find wasps and bees foraging in similar places, such as spilled sugar or rotting fruit. Foraging bees and wasps are less aggressive than the ones you'll experience coming out of a disturbed nest, but they will still sting if they feel threatened. The biggest difference between a wasp and a bee sting is that wasp stingers are not barbed, so if a wasp is stuck in your clothing, you might be stung by the same wasp multiple times. On the other hand, if you are stung by a honeybee, the stinger is barbed and it will get stuck in your skin, even after the bee tears itself apart from it and flies away (which is why honeybees die shortly after they sting). You will need to use a forceps or tweezers to remove the venom sack (which keeps pumping venom even after the bee is gone) and the stinger.

Don't Fear the Foragers

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Bees, wasps, and ants are part of our natural ecosystem. we need them to pollinate our crops, turn over our soil, and eat the critters that eat our plants.

When you see bees flying around, they are either:

  • Collecting food to carry back to their nest
  • Looking for a place to build a nest or find a new nest site
  • Defending their nest.

You will get stung by a bee flying around if you are:

  • Picking flowers, and you grab near the stem where the forager is resting
  • Painting your house and you accidentally kneel on a scout bee/wasp
  • Mowing your lawn and discover that a colony of yellowjacket has been living in your lawn all summer.

How NOT to get stung

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  • If you're working in a garden or a place where you've seen bees and wasps flying around, always look before you grab something or sit.
  • Wear clothing that is loose enough to be comfortable, but tight enough that a rogue bee or wasp can't accidentally get caught in there. They will panic, they will sting, and they'll probably sting a few times before you get them out of there.
  • If you had a nest last year, you probably have a nest nearby this year. For ground nesters -  watch for a streamline of insects flying into and out of a central spot and avoid that spot. Yellowjackets nest underground or in small cavities in the exterior of your house. Honeybees will find cavities in old trees or in your house to. Paper wasps will nest under eaves of the house.
  • When you find a nest, DO NOT BREATHE ON THE NEST. Bees, wasps, and ants use carbon dioxide as a cue that a predator is nearby and they will attack your face. DO NOT SHAKE THE NEST. They may not be able to hear you, but they can feel you. If you tromp (or mow)) on the ground nearby, slam the door next to an eave nester, or shake th etree whee they are living, they will attack you.
  • If you have disturbed the colony, remain calm. BEES DON'T STING TREES. That means, bees and wasps land on a lot of things, but they aren't going to sting something they don't deem threatening. Walk slowly and purposefully away from the nest. Avoid flailing your arms. If you have a swarm after you, run like hell and get inside. Don't turn around. Don't stick around to swat off the ones that are already stinging you. Just run.

Example 1: The "Rorschach Reaction" - normal

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OUCH! Sometimes right after a good sting, the reaction can look like an ink blot from a Rorschach test. THAT IS NORMAL. If she really got you, she might draw a little blood and leave a tiny hole in the center of where she stung. THAT IS NORMAL. If, however, you see pieces of stinger still stuck in there, find a tweezers or forceps and get as much of it out as you can. It might not be a bad idea to disinfect the area if you see this blood spot, as trapped particles may become infected. However, if this is as bad as it gets, you're going to be ok.

Where you get stung is not as important as how much venom the wasp or bee pumps into you while you're being stung. Here are photos of neck and hand stings. I always get nervous when I "get stung in the jugular" (I like to tell that story a lot), because it seems like there should be a direct line to the bloodstream. But nope. I have had more allergic reactions when I get stung in my arm than in my neck. And getting stung in the hand hurt like the dickens, but felt fine after about an hour. Still, it looks sort of bad-ass.

Example 2: Swelling - normal

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Sometimes, the stung area gets swollen. The top photo was taken about an hour after the sting (notice the red dot in the center marks where the actual sting took place). If you see localized swelling around the sting, THAT IS NORMAL. If it begins to itch like nothing has ever itched before, THAT IS NORMAL. There are, however, creams and medication you can take to help you with the itching. A pharmacist suggested I use Claritin for localized reactions if I didn't want the drowsy effect of Benadryl.

For this sting I used a hydrocortizone cream. The next day, my arm was still swollen and itchy. THAT IS NORMAL. I kept using the hydrocortizone cream and putting ice on the swelling to deal with the itching. In some cases, the swelling might last a few days. In this one, it only lasted a couple days.

Example 3: Seek Medical Attention

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It's hard to see from this photo, but one day I was stung on my left arm and broke out into hives on my right hand. This is referred to as a systemic reaction and is one of the first signs of an allergic reaction. THAT IS NOT NORMAL. If you start to see bumps (they sometimes look like mosquito bites) in places away from where you were stung, here are a few things to consider.

  1. If you are with someone, tell them immediately that you think you are having an allergic reaction to a sting. Make sure one of you is prepared to call 911 if you begin to have serious symptoms.
  2. If you are alone, call someone (or call 911).
  3. If you have access to Benadryl or other type of allergy medication, take it.
  4. Find a quiet place that you can relax. You just got stung, your anxiety is up, now you have hives, your anxiety is higher. If you don't relax, you won't know whether the next symptom is hyper-anxiety or anaphylaxis (link to Wikipedia page on Anaphylaxis).
  5. Drink some water.
  6. If you suddenly start to feel like you have a scratchy throat, itchy nose, or cough, those are signs you are going into Analphylaxis. Go immediately to the hospital and/or call 911. At this point, unless your doctor has recommended another course of action, a shot of epinephrine must be administered. If you have other allergies, perhaps you already carry an EpiPen (the official EpiPen website has A LOT of useful tips).

If you don't know what to do, best to err on the side of caution and seek medical advice. Please don't call me if there is an emergency. But, feel free to email me your story after the emergency has been cleared up. I love to hear a good sting story!