An Overview of Yellow Jacket Stings

Prevention, Treatment, and When Symptoms Are Serious

Yellow jacket wasp

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If you've ever experienced a yellow jacket sting, you know how painful it can be. Yellow jackets, which are predatory relatives to bees, have a reputation for being aggressive. And their sting packs a punch. While most people can treat themselves by icing the sting and taking an antihistamine, others may require medical intervention, as allergic reactions—which, in some cases, can be serious—can occur.

Here's what you should know about preventing yellow jacket stings—and what to do if you get stung.

Preventing Yellow Jacket Stings

Keeping a safe distance from yellow jackets can help you avoid their brutal sting. You can distinguish yellow jackets by their smooth, slim appearance and long, dark wings. Though bees can also have yellow and black markings, they are usually stout and hairy with light-colored wings. Yellow jackets are also meat-eating predators, while bees solely get nourishment from flower nectar.

Yellow jackets are predators and scavengers that are readily attracted by sugars and proteins in picnic foods. If you are eating outdoors and find yourself surrounded by yellow jackets, leave the scene immediately.

Yellow jackets are naturally aggressive and will only get more aggressive if you try to shoo them away. Provoking them with smoke, insecticides, or other means may increase your chances of being stung. In addition, when provoked, yellow jackets release chemicals into the air known as pheromones, which call other yellow jackets to join them in an attack.

Treatment for Yellow Jacket Stings

When a yellow jacket stings you, its stinger pierces your skin and injects a venom that causes sudden and often extreme pain. You may also develop redness and swelling around the site of the sting a few hours later.

Unlike a bee sting, a yellow jacket will not leave its stinger behind once you've been stung. As such, you won't need to pull out the stinger as you might with a bee.

If you've been stung and are experiencing pain without other symptoms, you can treat the injury by following these steps:

  1. Wash the sting site with soap and water.
  2. Apply a cold pack to the sting to reduce the pain. To avoid damaging your skin from the cold, place a cloth barrier between your skin and the ice pack. Keep the pack moving, and avoid icing the skin for more than 20 minutes.
  3. Apply a topical antihistamine or calamine lotion to the skin.
  4. If needed, take an over-the-counter oral antihistamine like Benadryl (diphenhydramine) to relieve mild itching and swelling. Avoid driving or using heavy machinery as the drug may cause drowsiness.

A number of home remedies can be also found online, including applying baking soda and water, vinegar, or commercial meat tenderizers to the site of a sting. While some people strongly believe in these do-it-yourself remedies, there is no evidence to support their effectiveness. Proceed with caution before trying any of those remedies at home.

Allergic Reactions and Anaphylaxis

Systemic allergic reactions to insect stings affect up to 5% of the population during their lifetime, according to a study published in the Journal of Asthma and Allergy.

Some insect stings can cause a potentially life-threatening allergy known as anaphylaxis. This tends to occur more with honeybees than yellow jackets since their stinging mechanism can remain embedded in the skin and continue to release venom long after the sting. Still, it is possible with a yellow jacket sting.

Overall, roughly three of every 100 people stung by an insect will experience anaphylaxis, according to research from the John Hopkins Asthma and Allergy Center.

Symptoms of anaphylaxis include:

  • Shortness of breath (dyspnea)
  • Wheezing
  • Hives or rash
  • Facial swelling
  • Swelling of the tongue and throat
  • Rapid heartbeat (tachycardia)
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty swallowing (dyspnea)
  • A feeling of impending doom

Anaphylaxis to an insect sting can develop at a terrifyingly rapid pace, with symptoms often appearing within five to 10 minutes. Delay reactions, also known as biphasic anaphylaxis, are more common with food and drugs than insect stings.

Call 911 or seek emergency care if you or someone near you experience symptoms of anaphylaxis following a yellow jacket sting. If you have a history of anaphylaxis or experienced a severe reaction to an insect sting in the past, you may be advised to carry an epinephrine auto-injector, also known as an EpiPen, for emergencies.

If left untreated, anaphylaxis can lead to shock, unconsciousness, coma, asphyxiation, cardiac or respiratory failure, and death.

If you are at risk of anaphylaxis, ask your doctor for a referral to an allergist for immunotherapy treatments (also known as allergy shots). The aim of the immunotherapy is to desensitize you to the insect venom by introducing tiny amounts into your body at regular intervals. If successful, immunotherapy may help prevent anaphylaxis. However, it may not erase all of your allergy symptoms.

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