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Bee sting allergies: Symptoms, diagnosis and treatment

A bee sting is painful and irritating for several hours, but not too serious for most people.

However, for around 1 in 150 children and 3 in 100 adults, a sting from a bee can trigger a serious allergic reaction, including anaphylactic shock.

Honeybee leaving stinger embedded in skin

The bee leaves its sting in the skin, and this needs to be removed straight away to help prevent infection.

The sting should be scraped using something like a credit card. The sting shouldn’t be pinched with fingers or tweezers to avoid spreading the venom.

When to call 999 for a bee sting

Serious allergic reactions to bee stings are rare, but when they do happen, they are a medical emergency and an ambulance should be called by dialling 999.

It is not clear why bee sting allergies develop. The allergy may not be apparent the first time a person is stung. Bee-keepers are more likely to develop bee sting allergies.

When there is a life-threatening allergic reaction, painful hives and swelling may progress rapidly to block off airways, causing circulatory collapse.

What are the serious symptoms of a bee sting allergy?

In most cases, a bee or wasp sting causes only minor symptoms at the site of the sting, including:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Redness
  • Itching or burning

Symptoms of bee sting allergy and anaphylactic shock include:

  • Rapid swelling around the eyes, lips, tongue or throat
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Wheezing or hoarseness
  • Itching, cramping, or numbness that is severe
  • Dizziness
  • A reddish rash or hives
  • Stomach cramps
  • Loss of consciousness

Seek urgent medical advice about a sting allergy if you are stung and develop any of the symptoms of anaphylactic shock. Get medical help immediately.

How is a bee sting allergy diagnosed?

There are a number of different tests that an allergy specialist might suggest a patient have in order to determine the scale and type of an insect sting allergy. However, wherever possible a detailed history of the patient’s symptoms is probably more important due to the somewhat imprecise results of some tests and the way the body can change its allergic state quite suddenly.

Established and accepted in current medical practice:

Skin prick test: The skin is pricked and a low dose of different venoms is introduced into the skin. The level of response is monitored and this can be an excellent way of determining the scale of allergy and the exact insect to which the patient is allergic. The test is cheap and simple but the major risk is anaphylaxis. This is a test favoured by many allergy specialists and is considered to be the "gold standard".

Blood test: A blood test is taken and the levels of venom specific IgE antibodies in the blood is measured. This can show the level of the allergy and the precise insect to which the patient is allergic.

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