Yellow jackets are the most common source of stings in the United States.
In this article, we take a look at why yellow jackets sting people and what people should do if they do get stung.
Contents of this article:
Why do yellow jackets sting?
Yellow jackets are by nature very territorial of their colony and will typically sting because it is being disturbed.
A yellow jacket's coloring means that it is easily mistaken for a bee.
If a person is very close to the insect's nest - even just a few feet away - the yellow jacket will probably sting. As a result, yellow jackets are perceived to be very aggressive.
Yellow jackets are also common visitors to picnics, where they will try to feed on fruits and picnic foods. If they feel threatened while trying to feed, they will sting.
Yellow jackets tend to be problematic in late summer and early fall when the insects that they typically feed on become scarce. They usually do not venture more than 1 mile from their nest to look for food.
Yellow jackets start to build their nests in the springtime. They live in large groups with thousands of other yellow jackets. Yellow jackets build their nests in various locations, including trees, building eaves, hollow wall spaces, and in children's playground equipment.
Only female yellow jackets sting. The male drones do not sting. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, an estimated 95 percent of all insect stings are from either a yellow jacket or a bee.
Yellow jackets tend to sting children more often than anyone else as they are often playing outside.
Differences between bee stings and yellow jacket stings
Both bees and yellow jackets have stings that can be very painful. The way each insect stings is slightly different.
Although most species of bees can retract their stinger from human skin, they will only sting once. The honeybee, however, is unable to remove its stinger and will usually die after stinging a person.
A yellow jacket has a smooth stinger, which means that a yellow jacket can sting multiple times, and as a result, the sting can be especially painful. However, some species of yellow jacket may leave their stinger in the skin.
Allergic reactions to yellow jacket stings
When a yellow jacket stings a person, it inserts its stinger into the skin and injects venom. It is this poison that causes a person to experience a reaction. The venom also contains proteins that can cause an allergic reaction.
People who are stung on the face are more likely to experience increased swelling.
Examples of reactions to a sting include:
- Pain: The insect's sting can cause pain, itching, and burning. For those who experience mild reactions, the pain usually lasts for 1 to 2 hours.
- Redness: Stings can often cause a red, ring-like reaction. The redness will last up to 3 days and does not necessarily represent an infection.
- Swelling: Bee stings can cause swelling that lasts up to 2 days after the initial sting. The swelling can vary based on the degree of reaction as well as the location where a person was stung.
For example, stings to the face tend to cause more pronounced reactions and swelling than stings elsewhere on the body.
While these reactions are painful, they do not usually require a visit to the doctor or a trip to the emergency room.
Some people can sometimes experience a severe and life-threatening reaction to a yellow jacket sting, however. This is known as an anaphylactic reaction.
This reaction will usually occur within 2 hours after the person was stung. The main symptoms are swelling of the airways, which can cause difficulty breathing and swallowing.
Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency. If an adult or child is experiencing this, someone should call 911 or seek emergency medical treatment.
If a person develops hives that cause swelling, they should call their primary care physician or child's pediatrician, as this can lead to anaphylaxis.
If a sting reaction gets worse over time instead of better, a person should seek medical treatment. Infection usually sets in about 24 to 48 hours after a person has been stung.
Doctors cannot always predict who will have a strong adverse reaction to a yellow jacket sting.
According to some research, developing an allergic reaction to yellow jacket stings does not seem to run in families. About 30 percent of those who experience a severe reaction to a yellow jacket sting also have other allergies that result in skin irritation.
It is possible that a person can be stung by a yellow jacket once and not have a severe reaction, yet have a severe reaction to a subsequent sting.
If a yellow jacket sting causes a mild reaction that can be treated at home, there are several steps a person can take. These include the following steps:
An over-the-counter cream can be used to reduce swelling and discomfort.
Applying a steroid cream
Putting a 1 percent hydrocortisone cream onto the sting site can help to reduce itching and swelling. This medication is available over the counter and should be applied three times a day.
Applying a paste to the sting
Make a paste by mixing water and meat tenderizer powder. This powder contains enzymes that can neutralize the yellow jacket's venom. As a result, pain and swelling will decrease. Do not apply this paste near a person's eye.
Another option is to make a paste of baking soda. Remove the paste after 20 minutes.
Rubbing a sting with an ice cube can help to reduce pain, as can applying an ice pack. However, always wrap the ice pack in a cloth to protect the skin from damage.
Taking an over-the-counter pain reliever
Medications, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, can help reduce the pain and discomfort associated with a yellow jacket sting.
Taking a dose of diphenhydramine (Benadryl)
This medication can help to reduce hives or the severe itching that can sometimes accompany a yellow jacket sting.
Using an EpiPen
Severe allergic reactions are usually treated with an injection of epinephrine, which can reverse the effects of an allergic reaction. If a person experiences serious allergic reactions, a doctor will typically prescribe an epinephrine injector, which is also known as an EpiPen. People should carry this device with them at all times to reduce the risk of having an allergic reaction.
If a person does happen to come across a nest of yellow jackets, they should cover their face and walk away from the nest slowly. Fast movements can attract more yellow jackets, resulting in more stings.
To reduce the risk of a yellow jacket sting, people should:
- always maintain tight-fitting lids on trash cans to prevent yellow jackets from taking up residence
- frequently empty trash cans and rinse them out to prevent buildup from spilled food items
- always serve beverages in covered cups with straws when serving drinks outdoors
- never leave out open soda cans or other drinks that could attract yellow jackets
- place ventilation screens over any windows and door screens to ensure yellow jackets cannot get into the home
People should also avoid squashing a yellow jacket outdoors. When crushed, yellow jackets emit a type of hormone that causes them to alert other nearby yellow jackets to attack. Killing one yellow jacket could lead to further stings.
Unfortunately, insect repellents will not work against yellow jackets and other stinging insects. If a person does come across a nest of yellow jackets, they should contact a professional pest control company to remove it.