How to Treat a Bee Sting Safely

Bee stings are always at least painful and they can be deadly if you're allergic to bee venom. If you've had any kind of allergic reaction to previous bee stings, you have a higher chance of going into anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction, after your next sting.​

When females of some bee species sting you, they leave behind a barbed stinger attached to a venom sack. The stinger can continue injecting venom into your body until it's removed, so it's important to remove the stinger right away. (Males, females from other species, yellow jackets, hornets, and wasps do not leave stingers behind, so if you don't see a stinger, you were likely stung by one of them.)

Anyone who's stung will generally experience:

  • Sudden intense pain
  • Swelling around the sting
  • Redness and itchiness around the sting

Whether or not you're allergic to bees, it's important to take the right steps immediately after a sting.

How to Treat a Bee Sting
Verywell / JR Bee
1

Symptoms of a Severe Allergic Reaction

Red hives cover a forearm.


gokhanilgaz / Getty Images

Severe allergic reactions to stings can be deadly, whether you're stung by a bee, wasp, hornet, or yellow jacket. Emergency medical treatment is required if you or someone else has these symptoms after a sting:

  • Itching or burning that's away from the site of the sting itself
  • Hives (raised welts) elsewhere on the body
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Scratchy throat
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness

If you've had anaphylaxis after a bee sting, you should always carry an epinephrine auto-injector (EpiPen) with you in case you're stung again. This can get you breathing and keep you alive. If you witness anaphylaxis in someone else, use any EpiPen that's available along with calling 9-1-1.

Most people only find out they're allergic to bee stings after they've been stung, making it a surprising and frightening situation.

Known Allergy+Sting=9-1-1

Anytime someone with a known bee, wasp, hornet, or yellow jacket allergy is stung, and especially if they don't have an EpiPen, you should call 9-1-1. Do not wait for symptoms to appear.

2

How to Treat a Bee Sting

A bee sting has created a red, raised bump on a person's arm.


Catherine McQueen / Getty Images

The suddenness of a sting can cause panic, both in the person stung and the people around them, as they try to figure out what just happened and deal with the pain. It's important to stay calm (or calm down) as much as possible so you can handle the situation.

As long as there's not an anaphylactic reaction to deal with, the steps you need to take are pretty simple.

A close-up photo shows a bee's stinger and venom sac protruding from skin.


Paul Starosta / Getty Images

Take Out the Stinger

Inspect the area closely. You'll likely see a red bump. If a stinger was left behind, you'll see a small, black filament sticking out of the center. It may have a bulbous end, which is the venom sac.

Especially if the skin around the sting is loose, pull it tight to get a better look and make it more accessible. Then, pinch or scrape the stinger to pull it out. Act quickly, because the longer it pumps in venom, the more the sting will hurt. It also increases the risk of an allergic reaction.

You may have heard that you should always scrape bee stingers off because pinching the venom sack could push in extra venom, but that's one of the biggest myths of first aid. Research shows that pinching the stinger doesn't seem to inject more venom, but being slow to remove it does. So how fast you get the stinger out is much more important than how you do it.

It is okay to pull stingers out with your fingers, brush them off or get them out any way you can. The longer bee stingers are allowed to remain in the body, the more severe the reaction will be.

Once you've removed the stinger, try to get away from the area where the sting occurred. Leaving the stinger behind actually kills the bee, and dying bees release a scent that attracts other bees. While the one who stung you no longer poses a risk, its hive mates will when they arrive. Clearing everyone out of the area can prevent more stings.

Treat Local Reactions

Once you're in a safe place and have removed the stinger (if necessary), clean the area with soap and water. It'll hurt, but this is important for preventing infection.

Bee stings almost always cause a local reaction (at the site of the sting), even in people who aren't allergic to them. To ease the redness, swelling, itching, and pain, you have a few things to try:

  • Ice the area to reduce swelling (but be sure not to cause frostbite.)
  • Use an antihistamine like Benadryl (diphenhydramine) to reduce swelling and itching.
  • Try Advil (ibuprofen), Aleve (naproxen), or Tylenol (acetaminophen) for pain.
  • Apply calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream along with a bandage to help with pain and itching.
  • Don't scratch, as that can make it worse and put you at risk of infection.

Time is the best medicine. The pain will usually go away pretty quickly, and swelling and itching may last for a day or more.

Watch for Warning Signs

Again, watch anyone who's been stung closely for signs of anaphylaxis. Even if they've been stung before and didn't have an allergic reaction, they might this time. An allergy can develop after any sting.

Symptoms of anaphylaxis typically develop within two hours of the sting, but it may be a longer or shorter amount of time. Any symptoms of anaphylaxis should be treated as an emergency. Don't try to treat the allergy and see what happens—call 9-1-1.

What to Do About Multiple Bee Stings

Anyone who has been stung multiple times (10 or more) needs to go to the emergency room. Multiple local reactions, even without an allergy, can cause a lot of pain. Also, the more venom in your body, the more likely it is you'll have an allergic reaction.

3

Remedies

A woman applies a wet washcloth to the back of her hand.

seksan Mongkhonkhamsao / Getty Images

For bee stings that don't involve allergic reactions, you may be able to get relief from a variety of home remedies. These may be helpful if you can't or don't like to take pain medications or if the sting still hurts in spite of them. (Most of these are folk remedies and not supported by scientific research.)

Apple Cider Vinegar

Some people say that apple cider vinegar can neutralize the venom and help lower inflammation. You can apply this one in a couple of ways:

  • Soak a cloth in vinegar and apply it to the sting
  • Soak the stung body part in a water and vinegar solution

Give this treatment about 15 minutes.

Baking Soda

A paste made with baking soda and water may alleviate the pain of the sting and help reduce the inflammation. To make it:

  • Get 1/4 cup baking soda
  • Mix with 1 to 2 tablespoons of water
  • Slather it (gently) on and around the sting
  • Bandage the area and leave it on for 15 minutes or more

While this hasn't bee researched for bee stings, some evidence shows it may be helpful for treating jellyfish stings.

Toothpaste

A simpler method than making the baking soda paste is just dabbing toothpaste onto the sting. This approach has no scientific backing but some people swear by it.

Honey

Honey, ironically, may be an effective treatment for bee stings. It's been long known to have properties that reduce inflammation, speed wound healing, and kill germs that may cause an infection. Again, just dab a little on the sting.

Aspirin Paste

Taking aspirin may help with the pain of a sting, but some people go a step farther and crush up a tablet with water to make a paste, similar to the baking soda treatment.

This topic has gotten a very small amount of attention from medical researchers, but not for quite a while. A 2003 study concluded that a topic aspirin paste did nothing to help with swelling and pain and actually made the sting say red for longer. Researchers found ice to be a superior treatment.

4

Prevention

A bee gathers pollen from a pink flower.


Sumiko Scott / Getty Images

Especially if you know you or someone close to you is allergic to bees, you should take steps to prevent stings during outdoor activities. Bees, wasps, hornets, and yellowjackets are attracted to sweet smells and bright colors, so to make sure you're not attracting them:

  • Cover your food
  • Cover soda-can openings
  • Stay away from garbage cans
  • Avoid clothing with bright colors or flower prints
  • Avoid body care products that smell sweet
  • Stay away from flowers

Stinging is how these insects protect themselves and their hive, so one way to prevent stings is to not make them feel threatened:

  • Stay away from hives or nests
  • Don't swat at them—instead, try to stay calm and still
  • Wear shoes in case you step on one
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Article Sources
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