Bee and wasp stings are common and painful. In most cases, they are not severe, but some people can have a life threatening reaction.

The most common bee sting is from honeybees, but some wasps and other insects can also sting. In the United States, yellow jacket wasps produce the insect sting that is most likely to cause an allergic reaction.

The bee’s stinging apparatus consists of a sac of venom attached to a barbed stinger. The wasp’s is similar but with a smooth stinger. When a bee or wasp stings, the sac contracts, pumping venom into the tissue.

The information below refers to bee stings, but it applies to stings from both bees and wasps. The symptoms, treatments, and dangers are the same.

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A bee sting usually causes a sharp pain and a puncture wound or laceration in the skin.

The venom in a bee or wasp sting induces a local toxic reaction at the site of the attack.

A typical local reaction to a bee or wasp sting produces the following symptoms:

  • instant pain at the site of the sting that is sharp, burning, and usually lasts a few seconds
  • a swollen, discolored mark that can be itchy, burning, and painful
  • swollen hives or welts that peak about 48 hours after the sting and last for up to 1 week

Some stings may produce the following symptoms, which doctors call a large local reaction:

  • extreme discoloration and swelling that affects an area of the skin up to 10 centimeters (cm) across
  • swelling of an entire extremity or limb, which may last a few days
  • in the case of multiple stings, there may be a rash, fever, nausea, and headaches
  • rarely, swelling and pain in the joints, which tend to develop after several days

Multiple stings can be fatal for children.

In some people, components of the venom can cause an allergic reaction.

Someone who knows that they are allergic to stings may carry an epinephrine injector. A bystander can help the person administer this injection if necessary.

Learn more about bee sting allergies.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provide advice on first aid for someone who has received a bee or wasp sting:

Things that a person or bystander should do include:

  • staying with the person to watch out for signs of a severe reaction
  • calling for urgent medical help if there are signs of an allergic reaction
  • removing the stinger promptly if it remains in the skin, as honey bee stingers continue to inject venom
  • remaining calm and moving to another area, as wasps and hornets do not usually leave a stinger, meaning that they can sting again
  • washing the site of the sting with plain soap and water
  • applying a cold compress — for example, a cloth-wrapped ice pack, frozen peas, or a cold cloth — to reduce swelling

People can remove the stinger by wiping it with a piece of gauze or scraping a fingernail, piece of card, or bank card over it.

Things to avoid doing include:

  • squeezing the stinger or using tweezers in an attempt to remove it, as this can lead to the injection of more venom
  • scratching the sting, which could aggravate the problem and lead to an infection
  • applying calamine lotion, vinegar, or bicarbonate of soda, which will not neutralize the venom because it will be deep within the tissues
  • bursting any blisters that develop, as doing so can lead to infection

Learn more about how to remove a bee stinger.

Most reactions to a sting are mild to moderate and do not involve a severe allergy.

However, some symptoms that develop after a bee sting signal a severe allergic reaction and need urgent medical attention.

Without treatment, anaphylactic shock may occur very quickly. This can be fatal.

Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that can be life threatening. The symptoms develop suddenly and include:

  • hives
  • swelling of the face or mouth
  • wheezing
  • fast, shallow breathing
  • a fast heart rate
  • clammy skin
  • anxiety or confusion
  • dizziness
  • vomiting
  • blue or white lips
  • fainting or loss of consciousness

If someone has these symptoms:

  1. Check whether they are carrying an epinephrine pen. If they are, follow the instructions on the side of the pen to use it.
  2. Dial 911 or the number of the nearest emergency department.
  3. Lay the person down from a standing position. If they have vomited, turn them onto their side.
  4. Stay with them until the emergency services arrive.

Some people may need more than one epinephrine injection. If the symptoms do not improve in 5–15 minutes, or they come back, use a second pen if the person has one.

Individuals who have previously experienced an allergic reaction to a sting have a 60% chance of having a similar or worse reaction to a sting in the future.

They may wish to carry a “bee sting kit” that contains an EpiPen, which is a device that delivers an epinephrine shot. This shot constricts blood vessels, helping increase blood pressure and reduce swelling. It also helps stimulate the heart to send more blood to vital organs. These effects help the body deal with the response while a person is waiting for medical help.

Sometimes, a sting can become infected. It is essential to consult a doctor if the affected area shows a pus discharge or there is an increase in pain, swelling, and discoloration.

People can treat most bee stings without medical attention, but the following products may help manage the discomfort:

  • aspirin or acetaminophen
  • sprays or creams that contain anesthetic
  • antihistamine creams or oral antihistamines

These are available over the counter (OTC) from a pharmacy, or a doctor may prescribe them.

If the local reaction is large with severe local swelling, doctors may prescribe oral corticosteroids for 3–5 days.

It is important to seek emergency medical care if a person has wheezing, swelling, or other symptoms of anaphylaxis or if they have an increased risk of experiencing an allergic reaction.

People who do not have an allergic reaction will often not need to speak with a doctor. However, it is best to consult a doctor if an insect sting leads to blistering, concerning swelling, or signs of infection, such as pus. Medical advice may also be necessary if the symptoms do not go away within a few days.

Some practical steps can reduce the risk of getting a bee sting.

Steps that people should take include:

  • wearing light-colored, smooth clothing that is not too loose
  • keeping clothing clean and maintaining personal hygiene, as sweat may anger bees
  • wearing shoes
  • removing nests near the home using a professional service
  • keeping the home clean, especially in areas where there is food
  • covering food containers and trash cans
  • using wide-brimmed cups when drinking sweet drinks, as they make insects easier to see
  • using repellent products, such as non-harmful traps
  • taking care during activities such as garden trimming, which could disturb a nest

Behaviors that might increase the risk of a sting include:

  • wearing brightly colored and floral clothing
  • using fragrances, cosmetics, and toiletries that have floral or banana-related scents
  • wearing loose clothing that can trap bees and insects
  • wearing open-toed shoes

Most bee and wasp stings cause symptoms such as swelling and discoloration that peak about 48 hours after the sting. The initial burning sensation and pain usually only lasts 1–2 hours. Discoloration can persist for 3 days and swelling for up to a week.

Bee and wasp stings can cause symptoms such as discoloration, swelling, and a burning sensation that can spread up to 10 cm across.

Most sting symptoms reach a peak at 48 hours, but swelling can continue for up to a week. If people show signs of a severe allergic reaction, such as facial swelling and difficulty breathing, they need immediate medical help.

People can use OTC and prescription medications, such as antihistamines, to treat stings.

Ways to prevent insect stings include refraining from wearing floral-scented perfumes and bright colors.