Wasp Sting: How to Identify and Treat Reactions

Wasp sting reactions can range from mild discomfort to severe pain and life-threatening allergies. Fortunately, most of the time, wasp stings are not an emergency.

Although rare, fatalities can occur from wasp stings, so it's essential to recognize the signs of severe wasp sting reactions.

This article explains wasp sting reactions, symptoms, and treatment.

A pollinating wasp in East Boldon, United Kingdom
Chris Miller / EyeEm / Getty Images

Between 2000 and 2017, a total of 1,109 people in the United States died from hornet, wasp, and bee stings, an average of 62 deaths per year.

Possible Wasp Sting Reactions

Wasp sting reactions may be localized or widespread, instant or delayed, mild or severe. Below are some to look out for.

Serum Sickness

Serum sickness is a complication that can occur from insect stings or from antiserum treatments for insect stings. Serum sickness is similar to an allergic reaction. It is often a delayed reaction, sometimes occurring one to two weeks after a sting.

Symptoms of serum sickness include:

Rhabdomyolysis

Rhabdomyolysis, also called "rhabdo," is a severe and rare complication from wasp stings. This reaction causes the muscles to break down and alters the composition of fluids and electrolytes in your body, often affecting the kidneys.

Researchers suspect rhabdomyolysis occurs due to the toxic effect of wasp venom on muscles. This complication is the result of multiple stings, often more than 50 at a time.

Symptoms may appear days after a sting and include:

Large Local Reaction

More commonly, wasp sting reactions include significant, localized inflammation. Up to 10% of people stung by insects develop a large, local response, which includes redness and swelling at the site of the sting.

A large local reaction can become as big as 4 inches in diameter—sometimes even bigger. It may increase in size over one or two days, then resolve in five to 10 days.

This kind of reaction is not a risk factor for developing anaphylaxis (severe allergic reaction). Only 5% to 10% of people with a large local reaction will develop an allergy to bee stings.

Allergic Reaction

An allergy to a wasp sting occurs when your immune system overreacts to the wasp's venom. If you notice any body changes other than local redness, swelling, itching, or pain at the site where you were stung, you may be having an allergic reaction.

Wasp sting allergy symptoms can progress quickly. Therefore, you should seek medical treatment immediately if you notice any allergy symptoms after being stung.

Anaphylaxis

Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction and a life-threatening medical emergency. These reactions can develop quickly after a sting, often within minutes. Therefore, if you notice any signs of anaphylaxis, call 911 immediately.

Symptoms of anaphylaxis after a wasp sting include:

Symptoms of a Reaction

Most wasp sting reactions are mild. Common wasp sting reactions include localized itching, swelling, and pain. However, some reactions can be severe and even life-threatening.

Treatment

Most of the time, you can treat mild wasp sting reactions with home remedies. Unlike bees, wasps do not lose their stingers when they sting, which allows them to sting you multiple times. From a treatment standpoint, you don't have to remove a stinger.

At-home wasp sting treatment measures include:

  • Wash the sting site thoroughly with soap and water.
  • Ice the area to reduce pain and swelling.
  • Raise the affected limb to reduce swelling.
  • Use a paste made of baking soda and water to reduce pain and swelling.
  • Consider over-the-counter (OTC) treatments for insect stings.
  • Ask a healthcare provider about using Tylenol (acetaminophen) for pain.
  • Ask a healthcare provider about using OTC nondrowsy antihistamines for swelling and itching.
  • Watch closely for more severe reactions.

Body-Wide Symptoms

You should not attempt to treat systemic (body-wide) symptoms at home, as these may indicate a more severe reaction. If you experience the following, seek emergency medical care:

  • Hives
  • Swelling in areas other than the sting site
  • Respiratory symptoms
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms

Treatment for severe allergic reactions is epinephrine, a stress hormone. Healthcare providers, including first responders, can administer this if you have an anaphylactic reaction.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

If your wasp sting symptoms are more than localized pain, swelling, and redness, it is a good idea to seek medical advice. If you experience any signs of an allergic reaction, don't wait to see if it becomes severe—seek emergency care immediately.

Summary

Wasp sting reactions are typically localized and mild, but they can be more unusual, delayed, or severe. Mild symptoms include pain, swelling, and redness at the sting site. Other reactions include serum sickness, rhabdomyolysis, large local reactions, and allergic reactions (including anaphylaxis).

In more severe cases, responses can be body wide, involving many systems. It's urgent to seek emergency medical care immediately if a systemic reaction is suspected.

A Word From Verywell

It's natural to worry about wasp stings. After all, allergies can develop at any age, and when they do, they can be severe. Even so, most people have only mild, localized reactions to wasp stings. But it's still a good idea to be aware of which signs are expected and which indicate an emergency. If you develop body-wide reactions, seek medical attention.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • When should I be concerned about a wasp sting?

    Systemic (body-wide) wasp sting reactions are cause for concern. If you notice anything aside from localized pain, redness, and swelling, seek medical attention. Anaphylaxis can develop within minutes. Symptoms like hives and respiratory or gastrointestinal problems require emergency care.

  • Can you have a delayed allergic reaction to a wasp sting?

    Wasp sting allergic reactions usually come on quickly, often within minutes. However, other reactions that mimic allergies can come hours or days later. These include serum sickness and rhabdomyolysis.

  • Can a wasp sting make you tired?

    Fatigue is not a common wasp sting reaction. However, if your adrenaline was high during the experience, you may feel tired afterward. If you experience excessive tiredness after a wasp sting, it's a good idea to seek medical advice.

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Number of deaths from hornet, wasp, and bee stings, among males and females—National Vital Statistics System, United States.

  2. American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. Serum sickness after sting.

  3. National Library of Medicine. Serum sickness.

  4. Radhakrishnan H. Acute kidney injury and rhabdomyolysis due to multiple wasp stingsIndian J Crit Care Med. 2014;18(7):470-472. doi:10.4103/0972-5229.136079

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rhabdomyolysis.

  6. UpToDate. Patient education: Bee and insect stings (Beyond the basics).

  7. American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. Insect sting allergies.

  8. Mount Sinai. Wasp sting.

  9. John Hopkins Medicine. Insect stings.

By Kathi Valeii
As a freelance writer, Kathi has experience writing both reported features and essays for national publications on the topics of healthcare, advocacy, and education. The bulk of her work centers on parenting, education, health, and social justice.