Even if you weren’t allergic before, you can develop severe reactions to bee stings over time. The more you get stung (be it in a single event, or just in general) the higher the risk of a bad reaction. It’s important to know what is normal, and what is a cause for concern.
Why Do Bee Stings Swell?
Even though an individual’s reaction to a bee sting can be a gamble, we’ll still experience similar symptoms. This is because bee venom has certain components that we will react to whether we are deathly allergic to it or not.
Bee venom is largely made up of melittin, a compound that destroys our cell membranes. It causes your blood vessels to expand, and your red blood cells to burst. It’s said that melittin also triggers our pain receptors, which is why bee stings hurt as much as they do.
You also find a protein called Phospholipase A2 in bee venom, and it’s responsible for cell membrane damage too. It also causes pain and inflammation, on top of the hurt caused by melittin.
Among other pain-causing chemicals, bee venom also contains histamines—the compound you can blame for allergic reactions. Histamines work with your immune system to defend your body against allergens. While the intention is good, the process is painful to those who need it.
Histamines cause your immune system to overreact to whatever triggers your allergies. This is why seemingly harmless things, like pollen, peanuts, or shellfish can cause such severe responses in some people.
Should bee venom be one of your triggers, the histamines it contains will send your body into overdrive and you could have an allergic attack. You can also thank histamines for the itching, redness, swelling, and inflammation.
What’s worse is that the melittin induces your body’s own histamine production, meaning some of us will have an overdose of it. It’s another reason why bee stings can be so frustrating to deal with, or even deadly.
Symptoms of Bee Stings
You can gauge whether or not you’re having an allergic reaction to a bee sting by the appearance, location, and intensity of your symptoms. They’re categorized as either mild, moderate, or severe, and will determine whether or not you need to see a doctor.
Mild and moderate symptoms of a bee sting are quite similar but they do differ in intensity. If you get stung, you will probably experience them whether or not you’re allergic.
You’ll feel immediate burning pain or sensations at the site of the sting, it will very likely welt and become inflamed. You’ll also experience itching, swelling, and irritation around the sting.
Mild symptoms will endure for up to a day (two, in extreme cases), while moderate symptoms are far more intense, and can last up to a week.
Severe symptoms are when you need medical assistance, as your life could be at risk. There is a risk of anaphylaxis if you’re allergic to bee stings, and the symptoms are unpleasant and dangerous.
On top of experiencing all the mild symptoms, you might experience nausea, vomiting or diarrhea, dizziness, fainting or loss of consciousness, difficulty breathing, changes in your blood pressure or pulse, rashes, hives or other skin irritations, and excessive swelling in your face, mouth or throat.
Severe reactions should always be treated as a medical emergency and should be attended to promptly. It’s also important to know that anyone can experience severe symptoms, even if you’ve never had a reaction before.
Mild symptoms can worsen and become moderate, and moderate symptoms can worsen and become severe. Even if you’re not experiencing a severe reaction to a bee sting, you should monitor it, just in case.
Swelling: What’s Normal and What’s Not?
Swelling is usually a telltale sign that something is very wrong, regardless of whether it’s caused by injury, insect bites, allergies, or illness. With bee venom, though, this isn’t always the case. Swelling is an expected symptom even if you’ll be fine.
In truth, it’s quite difficult to tell you how much swelling is cause for alarm. Each person will react somewhat differently to bee venom. My mild symptoms could be milder than yours. Perhaps you’ll experience itching and I won’t.
Still, there are some rules of thumb that you can follow, just to be safe. Let’s take a look.
After you’re stung, you’ll develop a welt around the sting site. It looks somewhat like a mosquito bite and can vary in shape and size. Don’t be surprised if you develop a small bump as well. This is perfectly normal.
You could swell up around the sting, and so long as the swelling doesn’t spread to (or develop at) other parts of your body, you’ll be fine. The swelling could turn red from inflammation as well.
Bee stings will hurt the most within the first two hours. Once the pain begins to subside, itching might occur. Swelling, redness, and itching pain all sound like allergic symptoms, if they’re the only symptoms present around the sting, you won’t have to worry.
It’s typical for swelling to subside after two days or so, though you must take what’s been stung into account. A sting on your face might not heal as quickly as one on your hand.
In a moderate reaction, these symptoms could last for up to a week and will be far more intense than if it were mild. Your swelling might be bigger than you’d expect, the itching could be excruciating, and the redness might look a lot worse.
It doesn’t sound pleasant at all, but again, so long as the symptoms don’t spread or worsen over time, there’s no cause for alarm.
In mild and moderate reactions, tenderness or sensitivity around the sting (or in the affected area of the sting) is also normal. You might experience extreme discomfort, but it’s nothing home remedies or conventional medicine can’t solve.
Even though swelling is a common symptom, you will have to monitor it closely to make sure it’s not foreshadowing a more severe reaction. Some severe symptoms will show up immediately, but in general, they could be slow on the onset.
You’re most at risk of a severe reaction within the first two hours of being stung. Even after that, and whether you’re allergic or not, you’re only safe once your sting has healed. Severe symptoms can develop rapidly, and seemingly out of the blue. It’s best to be cautious.
Naturally, regardless of swelling, if you experience any other severe symptoms, you should get immediate medical help. Severe symptoms include:
- Hives, extreme redness, or rashes that develop beyond the sting site
- Trouble breathing
- Rapid or dramatic changes in your pulse
- Dizziness, fainting, or blackouts
- Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
- Convulsions or seizures
- Confusion or problems remaining coherent
The fastest way to determine that your swelling is not normal and needs to be attended to is if it spreads or develops away from the sting. For example, if you’re stung on your foot, but your hands swell up, consider it an emergency.
This applies to all localized symptoms as well, not just swelling. Redness, welts, itching, and even pain shouldn’t occur anywhere else but around the sting site.
Outside of having a severe allergic reaction to stings, your swelling could still be abnormal. If it hasn’t subsided within a week, you will have to have it checked by a doctor.
The same applies if it continues to swell rather than subside, or if it discolors. You should see a doctor if you have swelling by your joints or eyes. Swelling in or on your throat is considered an emergency too.
Lastly, if your swelling reaches or exceeds four inches, you should seek medical attention. It’s a dramatic threshold, so if you feel like your swelling is too big—even if it falls under that limit—trust your gut, and have it checked by a medical professional.
You can’t be too careful. If you’re in agony or feel (or fear) that something is wrong, don’t disregard it. Always err on the side of caution.
How to Treat Bee Sting Swelling
Swelling can be one of the most frustrating parts of dealing with a bee sting. Not only is it painful, but if you’ve been stung in an inconvenient place (like your hands, feet, or even your bottom), your daily life and routine could be disrupted.
So long as you’re not in an emergency scenario, you can treat your sting (and so your swelling) at home. Below are a few methods you can try, and a few things you can put on your sting. Some of them won’t cost you anything.
If you’re wearing any jewelry (or even tight clothing) around the affected area, you should remove it as soon as possible. You won’t know how bad the swelling could be, and jewelry could get stuck, or constrict the swelling.
If at all possible, keep your sting elevated. Gravity will lessen the swelling.
A long-standing remedy for swelling can be applied here too: ice. It will work wonders on your swelling, and you don’t even need a lot of it.
Press an ice block against the sting, or keep an ice pack held against it. If you can’t handle the cold, you can wrap it in a clean towel, cloth, or even a t-shirt before pressing it against your skin. Ice can also numb the pain or relieve itching, so give it a try.
Applying honey to your sting will improve the symptoms of it too. Raw honey is preferred, but whatever you have at home will do. Other home remedies include a paste made from baking soda and water, toothpaste, activated charcoal paste, and even apple cider vinegar.
You can also treat your swelling with herbal or homeopathic remedies, namely witch hazel, garlic, or calamine lotion.
Remember to clean your sting before you treat it. Washing it with soap and water will do the trick. It will prevent infection later on. If you use any of these home remedies, give your skin time to breathe in between applications, and discontinue use if any of them cause irritation or discomfort.
Don’t forget about conventional remedies. They can make a significant difference in reducing your symptoms.
There are many over-the-counter medications available that could ease the inflammation. Ibuprofen is a favorite, and it functions as a painkiller too. You can also apply medicinal creams or lotions.
If you’re unsure of which medications to use, you can always consult your pharmacist or doctor. Always read the warning labels and instructions of medication or creams before you use them, just to be safe.
If you’ve been stung by multiple bees, treat it as though it’s an emergency. It’s typically advised to get immediate help if you’ve been stung 10 or more times in a single event (or five times for children). Don’t attempt to treat it yourself.
There’s no need to soldier through bee stings. Even if your swelling is mild, you can consult a doctor or pharmacist regardless.
Swelling is a frustrating symptom to deal with, but most of the time it’s perfectly normal. In most cases, you’ll have nothing to worry about and it will pass within a week (two days, if your symptoms are mild).
Redness, itching, pain, and welts are also normal symptoms of a bee sting, so don’t panic if you experience them. In general, swelling is not an emergency and can be treated at home.
In severe cases, swelling can be life-threatening and the only thing you can do is get medical attention. Rapid swelling, discoloration, swelling that spreads beyond the sting or swelling from multiple stings are all cause for concern and shouldn’t be brushed off.