Nothing puts a damper on a beautiful summer day like bug bites and insect stings, particularly getting stung by a bee, wasp, hornet or yellowjacket (all of which we classify under the term “bee sting”). Fortunately, bee sting treatment is usually straightforward. Home remedies and some over-the-counter first aid items are typically all you need to care for your bee sting.
With the right steps and remedies, you can be back outside enjoying the sunshine in no time at all. Read on to learn what bee stings look like, what treatments can help and when to worry about allergic reactions.
Note: If you are having a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis), which can be characterized by swelling in your face and throat, fainting, nausea, difficulty breathing or loss of consciousness, call 911 to seek immediate medical treatment.
What does a bee sting look like?
Most people know when they’ve been stung by a bee. It hurts. Plus, the culprit is usually nearby, or it left its stinger behind. But sometimes, all you know is that something stung or bit you. This is especially true for young children.
Unfortunately, bee stings are a common childhood injury. Stinging insects like to go after children. Little ones, especially toddlers may not have the skills to tell you what happened, but they sure can alert you to the place where it hurts. That’s why it’s important to know what a bee sting looks like and what bee sting symptoms are. After all, you need to be sure you’re treating the right sting.
Your body can react in one of four ways to getting stung by a bee.
- Local reactions – Local reactions are the most common. These stings will look like a bad mosquito bite, with swelling at the bite site. The area will be red, the center may be white and there may be a small brown stinger still in your skin. A welt may also form.
- Large local reactions – Large local reactions are the second most common. They’re similar to local reactions, except the area of reaction and swelling around the bite tends to be bigger.
- Toxic reactions – Toxic reactions are rare. They occur when your body has a toxic response to the venom in the stinger and you may feel nauseous or lightheaded.
- Allergic/anaphylactic reactions– Anaphylactic reactions are very rare. This is when your body has a severe allergic response to the sting. If this occurs, you must call 911 to get emergency treatment immediately. We’ll explain the signs to look for below.
Most of us will experience a local or large local reaction to a bee sting. These are handily treated on your own with first aid and home remedies.
Bee sting swelling and pain
Bee stings hurt. Anyone who says otherwise is probably just trying to impress you. When you get stung, expect these common bee sting symptoms:
- Pain: It’s okay to admit that it hurts. A bee sting feels like a sharp poke, as if you’ve been jabbed with a needle unexpectedly.
- Swelling: The affected area typically swells a little, sometimes a lot. If you were stung on your hands or fingers, be sure to remove any rings quickly. The swelling can make it hard to take rings off and could cause loss of circulation.
- Itchiness: You might mistake your bee sting for a mosquito bite thanks to the itchiness it can cause.
- Burning: Stings can burn to the point where there’s no mistaking it for anything other than a bee sting.
How to treat a bee sting
If your bee sting has caused a local reaction, there’s no need to seek medical care – you can treat it at home. You’ll first need to remove the stinger, if it’s there, and then focus on treating the sting. If you’re unsure of what to do at any step of the way, you can always call our nurse line for helpful tips and reassurance.
How to remover a stinger
Fun fact: One way to know what kind of insect stung you is to check for a stinger. If you’ve got one stuck in your skin, you were stung by a honeybee. A honey bee is the only species with a stinger that detaches, which means that the honeybee will sting and then die. On the other hand, wasps, hornets and other types of bees will fly off to sting again (and again and again).
A stinger will look like a small brown or black dot in the middle of your sting. It will have tiny barbs on it, keeping it lodged in your skin, and perhaps even a venom sac. Don’t worry about looking too closely, just try to get it out as quickly and completely as you can. You can use tweezers, your fingernails (only after you wash your hands), scrape the edge of a credit card across it, or even use sticky tape to remove the stinger. And if you don’t get all of it, it’s not the end of the world – the rest will come out naturally over a little time.
Home remedies for bee stings
There are a lot of ways to treat bee stings at home, and with items you probably have in your bathroom cabinet or kitchen first aid kit.
Treating a bee sting with cold
One of the best things you can do to treat a bee sting at home is use a cold pack or an ice cube to massage the sting. Leave the cold on for 10 minutes at a time and repeat as needed. This will reduce swelling as well as the pain.
Using honey to treat a bee sting
Another home remedy that you could try is honey. Strangely enough, honey seems to soothe angry bee stings. When you consider that honey is often the base ingredient to many homemade drawing salves, there could be more to this treatment method than we give it credit for.
Why using mud is bad for bee stings
What about mud? Mud is a common home remedy, however mud contains a lot of germs and may even contain tetanus spores. It’s an unsafe home remedy that you should avoid.
Baking soda, vinegar and bee stings
Both baking soda and apple cider vinegar (used separately) are said to neutralize bee venom. Unfortunately, there’s no science to back up either of these claims. What’s more, both baking soda and apple cider vinegar are alkaline and can have harmful effects on your skin if used improperly.
First aid treatments for bee stings
If you’re looking for solutions that are more tested than the home remedies mentioned above, you’ve got options, including pain and allergy medications.
- For pain, you can take acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin). You should only have to take one dose of this as the pain should subside in a few hours. Be sure to use as directed.
- If the sting is bothering you because it continues to itch or burn, try hydrocortisone cream. This can be applied three times a day. For extra relief, you can put the cream in the refrigerator because cold is particularly soothing. You should only need to treat your bee sting for a few days with hydrocortisone cream, and no more than a week.
- Antihistamines such as cetirizine or loratadine (brand names include Reactine, Zyrtec and Claritin) are pills you can take once a day for moderate to severe itching. These also provide relief and are available as over-the-counter options at your neighborhood pharmacy or drugstore.
When does a bee sting get better?
You’ve done your best to treat your bee sting at home, followed all the advice and even consulted our nurse line to be sure you were on the right track. So, when can you expect this bee sting to get better? The short answer is 3-7 days. In that time, you will likely experience:
- Pain and burning for 1-2 hours. That should be the worst of it before it subsides. Don’t forget to use whatever home remedies or treatments work best for you.
- Redness and swelling for about 24 hours. Don’t be surprised if the swelling actually increases. That’s to be expected, as well as redness, as your body processes the venom.
Can bee stings get infected?
Rarely, through scratching or other outside irritation, a bee sting can become infected. An infected bee sting will have a gooey yellowish-brown crust or scab covering the top of it. The scab may weep or drain yellow fluid.
Self-care for an infected bee sting begins with keeping it clean. This will help it get better at home.
- Wash the area with antibacterial soap and warm water.
- Remove any scab. Bacteria live under the scab. Soaking the scab with a warm wet washcloth can help.
- Pat dry and apply antibiotic ointment three times a day.
- Cover with a clean, dry bandage.
With this treatment, you can expect your infected bee sting to improve within 2-3 days and be completely healed within 7-10 days.
What to know about bee sting prevention
Having been stung by a bee once, you’re undoubtedly motivated to not let it happen again. Here are a few quick tips for avoiding stings in the future:
- Wear long-sleeve shirts and long pants when you’re in grassy outdoor areas.
- Skip perfumes and hair products, as well as brightly colored clothes.
- Yellowjackets love the smell of food, so take care when cooking or eating outside. Keep food covered and make sure to keep trash under wraps.
- Keep an eye on your drink – bees love a summer beverage and often end up in your drinking glass or soda can.
Your instincts might tell you to slap or swat at a bee that’s landed on you. But you’ll have much better outcomes if you stay calm when a bee lands on you. Bees land on people primarily because something on you smells interesting to them. If you can hold still, they will likely buzz off in a few moments. But if don’t have the patience to wait it out, you can try a gentler option than swatting. You can blow on it softly or use a piece of paper to brush off the bee to encourage the bee to move along to greener pastures.
Very rarely, toxic and allergic reactions can occur when you’re stung by a bee. They’re both potentially life threatening, but can be effectively treated when caught early and in the right circumstances.
Toxic reactions to bee stings
A toxic reaction to a bee sting happens when a person has the very bad luck of getting stung multiple times. Someone who’s experiencing a toxic reaction may feel nauseous, vomit and develop diarrhea. Within 24 hours, muscle breakdown and renal failure may occur if left untreated. It’s estimated that around 500 stings are enough bee venom to cause death.
Only 0.04% of the population will experience an anaphylactic reaction to a bee sting. It can happen with just one sting, and usually starts within 20 minutes. If you haven’t experienced symptoms within two hours, the chances of you developing anaphylaxis are slim. Symptoms include:
- Wheezing, difficulty breathing
- Swelling of the tongue
- Hypotension (low blood pressure)
- Abdominal cramping
- Fainting, faintness
Always call 911 in the event of suspected anaphylaxis. It’s important to note that if you have experienced anaphylaxis in the past, you have a 25-65% chance of experiencing it again if you’re stung. Allergy shots reduce this to less than 3%, however, so if you’re at risk for anaphylaxis, it may be a good idea to ask your doctor about preemptive allergy treatment.
When to go in, when to call a doctor
Call 911 immediately if someone stung by a bee has any of the symptoms of a severe reaction mentioned above or has had a life-threatening reaction to a sting in the past.
Visit the emergency department or urgent care if you experience any of the following, which could be signs of a bee sting allergy, within two hours of being stung:
- Hives, itching or swelling somewhere on your body other than where you were stung
- Vomiting or abdominal cramps
- You have a history of anaphylaxis and you used an ephedrine shot (also known as an EpiPen), and you’re experiencing no symptoms (this is to confirm no need of oral steroids)
Visit urgent care or primary care if you’re experiencing:
- A sting inside your mouth
- A sting on your eyeball
- More than 50 stings
- Fever and area of the sting is red or tender
- A red streak on your skin greater than two inches
Call your doctor or the nurse helpline if:
- It’s been 24 hours and the site has become red and very tender
- It’s been 48 hours and the site is increasing in size
- Swelling has increased over four inches and has spread over your wrists or ankle
- Hives have developed after three days
- Your sting has become infected, and it has not improved after three days
Get care for a bee sting
The best bee sting treatments and self-care options are probably right in your own home. From ointments to cold packs, everything you need to treat these pesky stings is likely in your cupboard. But we’re here if you have any questions or need advice. You can call our nurse line or make an appointment with one of our primary care doctors.
Now that you know what to look for, keep an eye out for warning signs of an allergic reaction to bee stings. Knowing what to look for and how to treat bee stings could just save a life.