How to Treat Bee Sting Allergy

Honey bee in flight approaching blossoming cherry tree
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How to Treat Bee Sting Allergy

If you are reading this article as a result of you or someone you know experiencing an allergic reaction as a result of a bee sting, stop reading, pick up your phone and call 911. If you, or the person you’re trying to help, has a known bee sting allergy and has an Epi-Pen available, use it now if an allergic reaction is occurring.

If you, or another person, is not known to be allergic to bee stings but was just stung by a bee (or another stinging insect such as a wasp, yellow jacket or hornet), follow a few simple steps to monitor for an allergic reaction.

Step 1: Remove the Stinger as Quickly as Possible

Generally, only honeybees leave their stingers after a sting, because of the barbs on the stinger. Removing the stinger quickly -- ideally less than 10 seconds after being stung -- is important because this minimizes how much venom is injected. The method of removing the stinger, such as scraping or pinching, seems to be less important, contrary to popular belief. If you spend too much time trying to remove the stinger by gingerly scraping at it, and more than 30 seconds passes, all of the venom has already been injected.

Step 2: Monitor for Signs of an Allergic Reaction

Nearly everyone, even people without a bee sting allergy, will experience symptoms of pain, redness, swelling and itching at the site of the sting. These symptoms are not dangerous and can be treated as outlined below. However, if the person was stung on the lips, tongue, inside the mouth or throat, then severe swelling at the sting site could become an emergency.

Symptoms of a more severe allergic reaction (called anaphylaxis) include (but are not limited to):

  • trouble breathing (coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath)
  • lightheadedness
  • fast heart rate and sense of fainting (perhaps due to low blood pressure)
  • upset stomach (and perhaps nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramping, and diarrhea)
  • skin rashes or swelling away from the sting site (such as hives, angioedema, itching without a rash, sweating or flushing).

These symptoms, if they are going to occur, usually start within a few minutes of getting stung.

If these more severe symptoms are present, get medical attention immediately, such as dialing 911 or going directly to the closest emergency room. While waiting for emergency medical help, if the sting victim has injectable epinephrine that was prescribed to them, use it immediately. Give the person an oral antihistamine (such as Benadryl, Zyrtec, Claritin or Allegra) only if the sting victim is able to swallow and does not have severe swelling of the tongue, lips or throat. Choking on medicine could make an already dangerous situation much worse.

Step 3: Treat Expected Side Effects of a Bee Sting

If the only symptoms are pain, redness and swelling/itching at the site of the sting, and the bee sting was not on the face, then the person is not likely to be experiencing a severe allergic reaction. I would recommend giving the person a single dose of an oral antihistamine (such as Benadryl, Allegra, Zyrtec or Claritin) as quickly as possible. This may help the local reaction and possibly reduce the chance, or lessen the severity, of an allergic reaction occurring later.

These medicines are available over-the-counter without a doctor’s prescription – just be sure to carefully follow the instructions on the package.

Continue to closely monitor the sting victim for signs of an allergic reaction, particularly for the first 30 to 60 minutes after getting stung. Most severe allergic reactions occur within this time period and would be unusual 4 hours or more after getting stung (If signs of an allergic reaction develop, get medical attention immediately). Localized swelling, redness, and itching at the site of the sting may worsen over many hours to days. Treatment of local reactions may include applying ice packs and topical steroid creams to the sting site, as well as taking oral antihistamines and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

Some insect stings, particularly those from yellow jackets, develop into cellulitis (skin infection). If pain, swelling or redness develops, worsens or spreads after 2 to 3 days, or if the person develops fever, chills, nausea and vomiting, medical care should be sought.

Learn more about the symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of bee sting allergy.


Brown TC, Tankersley MS. The Sting of the Honeybee: An Allergic Perspective. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol. 2011;107:463-471.

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