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How to manage insect bite allergies

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Insect sting allergies

Asthma and allergy experts offer updated guidelines for managing insect allergies; just in time for summer. Stinging insect bites result in half a million visits to the emergency room each year and 50 deaths annually.

Understanding risk factors for a bad reaction to a bee, wasp or ant bite can ensure summer picnics and other outdoor activities aren’t cut short.

Avoid stinging insects, and think about allergy shots

The American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI) and its members offer four pearls of advice for ensuring insect stings won’t ruin summer fun:

  1. Know your risk factors for allergy from insect stings.
  2. Do your best to completely avoid bumblebees that are increasingly causing severe allergic reaction from stings.
  3. Consider allergy shots.
  4. Carry an epi-pen that can be live saving if you’ve had wheezing, swelling, hives or signs of severe allergy to stings, known as anaphylaxis.

Medications, disease increase risk of severe allergy to insect stings

Those at high risk for severe allergic reaction from insect stings are individuals taking beta-blocker medications and ACE inhibitors that are used to treat hypertension and heart disease. If you're not certain about medications, ask your pharmacist or physician.

Some eye medications used to treat glaucoma contain beta-blockers (e.g. Timolol), putting raising the risk of allergic reaction from bites and stings.

Heart disease, high blood pressure and lung disease such as asthma are risk factors for severe allergy from stinging insects, according to the allergy and immunology experts, as well as anyone who has ever had a reaction that extends beyond the area of the bite, in addtiion to previous severe reaction.

Richard Nicklas, M.D., ACAAI spokesperson and one of the authors of the updated guidelines explains, “An allergic reaction is more severe and often includes hives, itching and swelling in areas other than the sting site. These reactions require immediate medical attention.”

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Are you a bee magnet?

Stay alert for bees that some people think are not very aggressive. Picnickers are bee magnets. Remember to keep food covered to discourage competition from insects that can lead to stings.

The ACAAI experts warn bumblebee stings should be avoided as much as any other biting/stinging insect. Allergies to bee stings are becoming increasingly more severe among gardeners and greenhouse workers.

Garden early in the morning when it’s cool and wear muted color protective clothing. Keep hair under a hat, especially if it’s long and avoid wearing sweet smelling personal care products and avoid bare feet.

Walking under a flowering tree could be enough to trigger a sting. Check your clothes before going back in the house. If you find a stinging insect, wait a minute quietly – it will probably just leave.

About allergy shots

Taking allergy shots is medically known as immunotherapy. According to the guideline authors, treatment is very effective for preventing reactions from insect stings. Compared to an epinephrine injection, allergy shots stop an allergic reaction from occurring in the first place.

An allergy specialist can prescribe epinephrine and determine your risks for reactions to insect stings.

Take care at picnics and outdoor gatherings to cover food. Avoid drinking from cans and straws. Know your risk factors for severe allergic reaction to stings, or anaphylaxis, and discuss treatment options with an allergy specialist. Keep garbage cans covered and avoid drinking from straws and cans when outdoors – places insects go for a drink of their own.

Updated 8/31/2014