In most cases, bee and wasp stings are not severe, and people can treat them with home remedies. However, some people can have life threatening reactions to stings and need urgent treatment.

The stings of bees, wasps, yellow jackets, hornets, and other insects can cause varying reactions ranging from localized skin inflammation to anaphylaxis — an allergic reaction.

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

This article describes what to do when a person receives a bee sting. The information below also applies to wasp stings. The symptoms, treatments, and dangers are the same.

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

Things a person or bystander should do include:

  • Stay with the person to watch out for signs of a severe reaction.
  • Call for urgent medical help if there are signs of an allergic reaction.
  • Remove the stinger promptly if it remains in the skin, as honey bee stingers continue to inject venom.
  • Remain calm and move to another area, as wasps and hornets do not usually leave a stinger, meaning they can sting again.
  • Wash the site of the sting with plain soap and water.
  • Apply a cold compress to reduce swelling. This could be a cloth-wrapped ice pack, frozen peas, or a cold cloth.

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

What to avoid doing

Things to avoid doing when a bee stings 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 how to remove a bee stinger.

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

Anaphylaxis: Symptoms and what to do

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.

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Learn more about bee sting allergies.

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.

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

They may wish to carry a “bee sting kit” that contains an EpiPen, 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 treatments may help manage the discomfort:

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

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 consult 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 resolve within a few days.

Learn how to prevent bee stings

Below are answers to some frequently asked questions about stings.

How long does a bee sting last?

The initial burning sensation and pain usually only lasts 1–2 hours. Swelling can continue for 48 hours and last up to a week. Skin discoloration can persist for 3 days.

What is a normal reaction to a bee sting?

Typical reactions to bee stings include swelling, discoloration, itchiness, and heat at the sting site.

What is the difference between a wasp sting and a bee sting?

Reactions to bee and wasp stings can look very similar. However, bees use a barbed stinger that can remain in a person’s skin. Wasps, hornets, and yellow jackets do not have barbed stingers and can sting multiple times.

How do I know if my wasp sting is infected?

It is rare for infection to affect stings. An infected sting might produce pus and be painful and swollen with spreading discoloration. Infection typically happens at least 24–48 hours after the sting.

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.