If you’re unsure of whether you’re allergic, the best thing you can do for yourself is to learn how to recognize the symptoms of a bad reaction to bee stings. Whether or not you’ve been stung before, this is useful information that could save your life or the lives of others.
Bee Stings Can Be Deadly
Approximately 100 Americans die each year as a result of insect-sting-induced anaphylactic shock. This doesn’t sound bad at all. The population count in the USA at the time was 281 million people. The percentage there is so low, it’s insignificant.
Some beekeepers will use this as bee propaganda, to portray bees as sorely misunderstood creatures that you don’t have to fear. They’ll tell you that this is more proof that bees are harmless, but take this with a grain of salt.
Rather than focusing on the fact that only a fraction of people who get stung are killed, we should acknowledge that bee stings still kill. Bee sting allergies are serious and still fairly common. It’s not worth it to put your own life in danger because you want to give bees the benefit of the doubt.
I love bees, I really do. I just want to call it as I see it so that you can be safe if you ever get stung.
What Causes a Bee Sting Allergy?
I’m no expert in biology so I can’t explain all of the science behind this. Allergies, in general though, are your body’s way of protecting itself against perceived attacks on your immune system.
This is why some people are allergic to otherwise harmless substances, like fur, peanuts, or pollen. In the case of venoms, we are all susceptible to it, because we are injected with poisons that actually attack our bodies.
Bee venom contains a number of chemicals that induce pain and inflammation in us, whether we are allergic or not. What happens when you’re allergic is that your body overreacts to it.
As is the case with all allergies, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Even though your body is just trying to defend itself, it ends up causing more harm than good.
Depending on the severity of your allergy, your body could be pushed into complete overdrive. This is when it becomes a medical emergency that requires immediate attention.
What is Bee Venom Made of?
Honestly, bee venom is mostly water. This sounds harmless, but it actually makes us more vulnerable to the venomous components. This is because moisture allows bee venom to spread more effectively. Since we are also made mostly of water, bee venom works faster in our tissues.
Bee venom contains something called melittin—a chemical that attacks our red blood cells, causing them to burst. It also makes our blood vessels expand, which affects our blood pressure.
It also includes a protein called Phospholipase A2, which attacks and destroys your cell membranes. This is what causes the pain and inflammation when you’re stung.
Bee venom also contains histamine, which causes itching and redness (as in most allergens). There’s also apamin which wrecks your nerve tissue, and hyaluronidase, which breaks down your cell tissues.
Bee stings don’t seem so simple or harmless anymore, do they?
The problem is that when you’re allergic, these awful symptoms are amplified, and that’s why it’s so deadly.
Normal Reactions to Bee Stings
Since the chemicals mentioned above target our bodies, everyone—whether we’re allergic or not—will experience symptoms if we’re stung by bees. Before I tell you what you should worry about, I’ll cover what’s no cause for concern.
You’ll have to gauge the severity of these symptoms. If you think that you’re having an abnormal or severe reaction, it’s better to get help.
Most people will experience mild symptoms. It will hurt (a lot) but you will have absolutely nothing to worry about. This includes:
- An immediate and sharp burning sensation or pain at the site of the sting
- Mild swelling, a small bump or a welt around the stung area
- Slight itching
- Symptoms that last for a few hours and subside within a day
Mild symptoms normally don’t require more than cleaning and simple methods, though you can take painkillers if you want to. The average bee sting doesn’t last for too long and shouldn’t cause a great issue in the long term.
In some of us, the symptoms will be more prevalent. This means that they’ll require more care and attention, but won’t be considered an emergency. Still, you should go to a doctor if the symptoms persist. On top of the mild symptoms, you might experience:
- Intense redness around the sting
- Swelling that intensifies or enlarges over time
A moderate reaction could last anywhere from a day to a week. So long as it doesn’t worsen to the point of extreme discomfort (or severe symptoms), you’ll be fine. The symptoms will fade on their own eventually, but you can still attend to them.
More often than not, you’ll need medication to combat the pain or inflammation.
Severe reactions can hit quickly, so don’t ignore any warning signs. As soon as you begin to experience an extreme reaction to a bee sting, get help immediately. Also note that even if you’ve been fine after previous stings, you’re still at risk of a severe attack.
Don’t attempt to soldier through it, or attend to it on your own. The best thing you can do for yourself is to call your local urgent care (or equivalent) for help, or if you can manage it, to get yourself to the emergency room.
Some people who are allergic to bee venom could rapidly develop anaphylaxis. This can be life-threatening and must be solved as quickly as possible.
Severe symptoms include:
- Pain, swelling, or inflammation that spreads beyond the sting site
- Rashes, hives, and redness that spreads along your body
- Swelling of your tongue or throat
- Labored or constricted breathing
- A rapid but weak pulse
- Fainting or blackouts
- Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
- Complete loss of consciousness
The last point, in particular, is terrifying if you have to deal with a bee sting alone. This is why it’s so important to always be prepared if you know you have an allergy. You will also have to act fast, whether you have medication or not.
Never be afraid to ask someone for help. They could end up saving your life. Severe reactions could cause you to stop breathing, or to go into cardiac arrest. Never wait to see if the symptoms will subside on their own. Get medical attention immediately.
What Happens When Multiple Bees Sting You?
Naturally, the more you get stung, the more venom will enter your system. This is especially hazardous in people with allergies but is still dangerous to even the most resistant people. Getting stung multiple times can also bring on extreme symptoms, more so if you’ve been stung more than 10 times.
You should treat multiple stings as an emergency if you experience any of the following:
- Any of the severe symptoms listed above
What Else Is Cause for Concern?
I don’t have to tell you twice that extreme symptoms require prompt medical care, but you might still need a doctor if you have mild or moderate symptoms. Some severe symptoms might not be immediately apparent. Be alert after you get stung, and if you experience any changes to your symptoms or a rapid worsening of them, treat it as an emergency.
You should visit the doctor if your symptoms persist for longer than what’s deemed safe. This would be a day (or two at most) for mild symptoms, and a week for moderate symptoms.
You should also seek medical attention if you have a preexisting condition like asthma, heart problems, or other severe allergies. You should also pay extra attention to stings if it’s a child, elderly person, or pregnant woman.
If you’re intoxicated when you get stung, you could be at a wider risk of developing anaphylactic symptoms too.
Is All Bee Venom the Same?
There may be slight variations between the potency of bee venom among species, but if you’re allergic to one type of bee, you’re probably allergic to all of them.
This is because you aren’t allergic to the bee itself, but rather to the allergens in the venom, which is common in all bees. For this reason, you could have a severe allergy to bees, but not to other insect bites.
It all depends on what your body is reacting to. Your safest bet would be to assume you are equally allergic to all bees.
That said, some bee stings are far more painful than others. The chemical make-up may vary, but there are some bees you’ll want to take extra care to avoid.
The most common bees to steer clear of are honeybees, of course. They’re the standard for insect bites and for bee venom allergies. Another problem with honeybees is that they swarm. If one stings you, it signals to other bees to sting you too and you’ll be at a greater risk of multiple stings.
This is to an even greater degree when talking about Africanized honeybees, who are prone to attacking unnecessarily.
One other thing that makes honeybee stings more deadly than other bee stings, is that they’re barbed. This means that honeybees are the only ones who leave their stingers in your skin. The longer it stays lodged, the more the venom works into your body.
The other side of this is that other bees won’t detach their stingers, so they can (and just might) sting you over and over again. This means that they could be more of an immediate threat than honeybees. Some bees, like bumblebees, although they can sting multiple times won’t swarm at you, and are unlikely to display aggressive behavior unless provoked.
Still, treat all bees as a threat when it comes to stings. You never know what you’re allergic to, or how bad your reaction will be.
Preventing Allergic Reactions to Bee Stings
It’s not always going to be possible, but prevention is better than cure. This could be as simple as posing as little threat to bees as possible (by treading carefully, wearing white clothing, or staying very still if they’re near); or it can be through therapy.
Allergy shots are a form of immunotherapy, which works very much as a flu vaccine would. A professional will expose you to small amounts of venom, to force your body to build up a resistance to it.
Another precaution you can take is to carry an epinephrine autoinjector with you at all times. This should be standard if you’re aware of an allergy. These lifesavers are used to halt severe allergic reactions and serve as a quick shot of medication in a dire situation.
You get autoinjectors for all sorts of allergies, and you can even acquire an antivenom autoinjector. There are also various other treatments you can put on a bee sting (after consulting a doctor first).
Bee stings should be treated with a sense of urgency. Many beekeepers are unwilling to admit that bees (or at least their stings) can be deadly. This is a dangerous attitude to have, as there are many people with severe allergies to bee venom.
Whether or not you’re aware of a bee venom allergy, you could still develop one. The smartest thing to do is to recognize the symptoms of an allergic reaction and to learn how to deal with them accordingly.