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Bee stings: Here are best prevention and treatment methods for injury

July 20, 2010
By CHRISTOPHER DIEM Journal Staff Writer

MARQUETTE - Bee stings, which can be painful, can also be potentially deadly so it's important to take precautions and to know what to do after getting stung.

Honeybees, wasps, yellow jackets, yellow hornets and white hornets are just a few stinging insects whose sting can cause life-threatening reactions. Most bees sting when they feel threatened or when protecting their hive. Usually, they will not sting without cause so people should not disturb them or their hive. One bee sting carries anywhere from 25 to 50 micrograms of venom which usually causes one of two types of reactions in people.

"The most common stinging-insect reaction is a large local reaction at the site. So if you get stung on the hand and your entire upper limb swells up that's considered a local reaction. It's not life threatening," said Dr. Bobby Joseph, a local allergist. "But some patients may have a generalized reaction where if you get stung on the hand the whole body swells up, where you get hives from head to toe, where you're short of breath, your throat closes off, or your blood pressure drops and you lose consciousness."

Article Photos

A new crop of honeybees from White Birch Apiary of Bruce Crossing settles into their new hives at Mike Potts’ Skandia Township farm. (Journal file photo)

That kind of reaction, called anaphylaxis, is life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention.

Joseph said doctors don't know why reactions to bee stings differ so much from person to person but they suspect it has something to do with genetics.

If a person is stung and gets a local reaction, Joseph said it's nothing to worry about. He said to pull out the stinger quickly, as it may continue to pump venom.

"Put some ice on the site, take an antihistamine, apply some over-the-counter steroid creams like hydrocortisone cream and things will gradually subside," he said.

A generalized reaction is much more dangerous. However, anaphylaxis can be reversed by injecting epinephrine, also known as adrenaline, into the body. People can carry around epinephrine in the form of a self-injectable EpiPen.

"You can get an EpiPen as a prescription and self-administer epinephrine and then proceed to the emergency room. If you don't have an EpiPen you should go to the emergency room for an adrenaline injection. You can take some Benadryl but it will only buy you some time until you get that adrenaline injection," Joseph said.

Another form of prevention is a monthly bee sting desensitization injection program, administered at an allergist's office.

Joseph said sometimes it takes two or more stings before a person knows they are allergic.

"Let's say you are susceptible to a generalized allergic reaction to a stinging insect. The first sting, there are cells in the body called mast cells and when you get stung your body produces antibodies against this sting, these antibodies are called (Immunoglobulin E) antibodies and they fill up the mast cells and all the IgE receptors on the mast cell are occupied by the allergy antibody," he said.

When the person is stung a second or later time, the antibodies that have filled up all the receptors clump together and the mast cell de-granulates and releases chemicals that cause anaphylaxis, Joseph said. Fluid leaks out of the blood and into body tissue. Blood pressure then drops to dangerous levels and if not treated this can lead to anaphylactic shock.

"There are many steps you can take to make yourself unattractive to insects," Joseph said. "Don't wear bright colored clothing, avoid perfumes or scents that can attract insects, try to wear shoes instead of sandals ... wear comfortable linen pants instead of shorts and long sleeved T-shirts instead of tank tops," he said.

Yellow jackets, as well as many other insects, are attracted to food, particularly sweet food. So take caution when picnicking or eating outside.

Christopher Diem can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. His e-mail address is



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