Insect Bites And Stings, Part 1

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In a survival scenario, you will see a million insects for every snake; so many, indeed, that you can expect to regularly get bitten by them. Insect bites usually cause pain with local redness, itching, and swelling but are rarely life-threatening.

Arachnid and Insect Bites

The exceptions are black widow spiders, brown recluse spiders, and various caterpillars and scorpions.  Many of these bites can inject toxins that could cause serious damage. Of course, we are talking about the bite itself, not disease that may be passed on by the insect.  We will discuss that subject in the section on mosquito-borne illness. In this article, we’ll talk about bees, wasps, and hornets.

Bee/Wasp/Hornet Stings

Stinging insects can be annoyances, but for up to 3% of the population, they can be life-threatening. In the United States, 40-50 deaths a year are caused by hypersensitivity reactions.

For most victims, the offender will be a bee, wasp or hornet. A bee will leave its stinger in the victim, but wasps take their stingers with them and can sting again.  Even though you won’t get stung again by the same bee, they send out a scent that informs nearby bees that an attack is underway. This is especially true with Africanized bees, which are more aggressive than native bees. Wasps and hornets (also called Vespids) can also be persistent in their pursuit of the intruder (that’s you). As such, you should leave the area immediately whether the culprit was a bee, wasp or hornet.

Reducing Bee Venom Reactions

The best way to reduce any reaction to bee venom is to remove the bee stinger as quickly as possible. Pull it out with tweezers or, if possible, scrape it out with your fingernail or sharp-edged object. The venom sac of a bee should not be manipulated as it will inject more irritant into the victim. The longer bee stingers are allowed to remain in the body, the higher chance for a severe reaction.

Most bee and wasp stings heal with little or no treatment. For those that experience only local reactions, the following actions will be sufficient:

  •  Clean the area thoroughly.
  • Remove the stinger if visible.
  • Place cold packs and anesthetic ointments to relieve discomfort and local swelling.
  • Control itching and redness with oral antihistamines such as Benadryl or Claritin.
  • Give Acetaminophen or ibuprofen to reduce discomfort.
  • Apply antibiotic ointments to prevent infection.

Topical essential oils may be applied (after removing the stinger) with beneficial effect.  Use Lavadin, helichrysum, tea tree or peppermint oil, applying 1 or 2 drops to the affected area, 3 times a day. A baking soda paste (baking soda mixed with a small amount of water) may be useful when applied to a sting wound.

Although most of these injuries are relatively minor, there are quite a few people who are allergic to the toxins in the stings. Some are so allergic that they will have what is called an “anaphylactic reaction”.  Instead of just local symptoms like rashes and itching, they will experience dizziness, difficulty breathing and/or faintness.  Severe swelling is seen in some, which can be life-threatening if it closes the person’s airways.

Those experiencing an anaphylactic reaction will require treatment with epinephrine as well as antihistamines.   People who are aware that they are highly allergic to stings should carry antihistamines and epinephrine on their person whenever they go outside.

Epinephrine is available in a pre-measured dose cartridge known as the Epi-Pen (there is a pediatric version, as well).  The Epi-pen is a prescription medication, but few doctors would begrudge a request for one.  Make sure to make them aware that you will be outside and may be exposed to possible causes of anaphylaxis.  As a matter of fact, it may be wise to have several Epi-Pens in your possession. See our articles on allergic reactions for a more in-depth discussion.

In Part 2 of this article, we’ll discuss spiders, scorpions, fire ants, and other troublesome insects.

Dr. Bones

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