When you need to worry about a bee sting

According to the Journal of Asthma and Allergy, about 5% of the population will experience an allergic reaction to an insect sting during their lifetime. These allergies may manifest early in life, or may not develop until later in life after several lifetime stings.

As the summer gets started, it’s time to understand the telltale signs of a bee or wasp allergy.

Dr. John Piotrowski, an emergency room physician with Advocate Condell Medical Center, Libertyville, Ill. explains the major symptoms of an allergic reaction and how to respond.

“In general, there are two types of reactions,” says Dr. Piotrowski. “There is a local reaction, which is pain and itchiness around the area of the sting itself. Everyone gets that, regardless of an allergy. Usually the treatment for that is supportive care such as medication for itchiness.”

The more dangerous form of a reaction, however, is systematic.

“A systematic reaction is true anaphylaxis,” Dr. Piotrowski explains. “These folks usually know that they are allergic to bees but some may not. They have an immediate reaction to the sting within a few minutes.”

Symptoms of a systematic reaction include trouble breathing, swelling of the throat and low blood pressure beginning immediately after the sting, and require immediate medical attention. Individuals with a previously diagnosed allergy and a prescription for an epinephrine auto-injection should use it immediately to slow the reaction, but all individuals experiencing anaphylaxis should go to a hospital as soon as possible for further treatment and observation.

“One dose of epinephrine may be enough and sometimes in may not be,” Dr. Piotrowski explains. “Sometimes patients need another dose – they may need steroids or antihistamines, and even intubation, depending on the severity of the reaction.”

Dr. Piotrowski also warns that all individuals with a diagnosed allergy should practice caution and carry their epinephrine injectors with them, regardless of the mildness of previous reactions.

“The way anaphylaxis works is that with every subsequent exposure to the allergen, the reaction gets worse,” Dr. Piotrowski says. “The first time you get stung, you may not have a huge reaction. But since your body has now seen that allergen and has produced an immune response against it, the next time it is introduced will be a little worse.”

Remember that reactions and symptoms manifesting beyond the site of the sting signify a systemic reaction and require professional medical care. Practicing caution and knowing which symptoms require further attention can go a long way in preventing a simple insect sting from turning into an emergency, no matter the season.

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