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How to treat a wasp sting

How to treat a wasp sting

Anxiety around being stung by a wasp is why so many of us fear them. We've all been there, screaming hysterically and running in circles trying to escape a wasp when it starts buzzing around our heads, getting annoyed at friends when they tell you to 'keep still'. Did you know that the average person gets stung by an insect no more than five times in their life?

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Do wasps sting?

Wasp stings are common - you probably know someone who's been stung at some point. However, they can cause a great deal of pain and discomfort, the severity of which might depend on the species you were stung by.

The most common types of wasps are yellow jackets and hornets. Wasps can sting for multiple reasons, but most only sting when they feel irritated by a presence, or threatened, or when their nest has been disturbed, as a defence mechanism.

Wasp sting symptoms

Wasp sting

"Insect bites normally cause a red, swollen lump to develop on the skin and it can be quite itchy. You might have actually seen the wasp itself sting you," explains Thorrun Govind, pharmacist and chair of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society.

"You'll have a raised area around the site of the sting, and you might be able to see a tiny white mark where the sting has punctured your skin."

There's also a chance of experiencing nausea and vomiting.

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How to treat a wasp sting

You might be able to treat a wasp sting insect bite yourself at home. There are several things you can do to ease any pain and itchiness:

Govind's tips for treating a wasp sting at home

  • Use a cold compress on the sting site to reduce swelling.

  • Elevate the body part (if it's an arm or leg) to prevent swelling.

  • Use calamine lotion to soothe stinging and irritation.

  • Take painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen to manage pain if needed.

  • Take antihistamines if necessary to reduce itching.

How long does a wasp sting last?

After effects of a wasp sting should only last for a few hours, but can last for a few days, depending on the severity. A lot of people tend to have a mild reaction, where the surrounding area of the sting site swells and becomes painful, but this typically passes within a week.

If your symptoms don't start to improve within a few days, you might need to seek medical advice.

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Anaphylaxis resulting from a wasp sting

In serious cases, a person can experience anaphylaxis following a sting. Anaphylaxis occurs when the body essentially goes into shock, as the immune system releases a flood of chemicals. Blood pressure drops rapidly, airwaves narrow, and breathing becomes restricted.

Other symptoms of anaphylaxis include either a racing or weakened pulse, a wider skin rash, or being sick.

How long after a wasp sting can anaphylaxis occur?

Anaphylactic shock from an insect sting may occur within a few minutes of being stung, with most severe life-threatening reactions occurring within 30 minutes.

"A severe allergic reaction to a sting will require immediate medical attention, so you should call the emergency services in these instances," says Govind.

Signs of a severe reaction to a wasp or bee sting
These include:

  • Severe swelling of the face, lips, or throat.

  • Struggling to breathe/feeling like your throat is closing up.

  • Hives or itching on parts of the body that did not come into contact with the sting.

  • Dizziness/feeling faint (caused by a sudden drop in your blood pressure)

  • Wheezing or gasping.

  • Feeling sick or being sick.

Govind stresses that these symptoms constitute a medical emergency and must be dealt with straightaway.

"That is why people who have a history of anaphylaxis should carry a wasp and bee sting kit with them in case they come into contact with a wasp sting. There are different types of injections, but the most commonly known and used ones are EpiPen or Jext. They can help to stabilise the blood pressure and help return respiration to normal."

Likewise, if you notice someone else showing signs of a severe reaction, you should act quickly, as this could save their life.

Wasp sting vs bee sting

You'd be forgiven for thinking wasp and bee stings are the same, especially as, if you hear something buzzing around you while outside, you probably don't care what it is and just want to swat it away! However, wasp and bee stings are different, particularly in their reasons for stinging.

For the most part, bees only sting once and if they are provoked (stood on, picked up, hit at). This is especially the case for honeybees and bumblebees. On the other hand, wasps can be aggressive and sting more than once.

A-Z Animals further explains that wasps and bees have different venom and can cause varying levels of pain.

"When it comes to venom, a bee and a wasp generally have similar effects but different ways of causing 'pain', as experienced by humans. Bees inject around 50-140 micrograms of toxin containing mostly melittin, plus hyaluronidase and phospholipase A2. Meanwhile, wasps inject 2-15 micrograms of venom per sting, mostly made up of antigen 5, enzymes, acetylcholine, and serotonin," they write.

Don't get us wrong, both wasp and bee stings can be pretty painful, but if you were to rate the intensity of the pain from a sting, wasps are likely to come out on top.

There are thought to be 75,000 individual species of wasp but, within the group, there are wasps with stings considered to be the most painful in the entire animal kingdom.

The Schmidt sting pain index measures the pain caused by stinging insects. The scale ranges from 1-4, with 4 being the most painful.

Most bees fall between 1-2 on the scale (most sit at 1), whereas most wasps sit at level 3. Only three insects are categorised as pain level 4, two of which are wasps.

How to avoid wasp stings

There are things you can do to avoid being stung by a wasp in the future. As annoying as it might be to hear, the first is to be still when you see a wasp and remain calm instead of panicking and waving your arms around. A frantic reaction means a wasp is actually more likely to sting you.

Govind offers other top tips for preventing wasp stings:

  • Cover your body with clothing where possible (long sleeves, trousers, closed-toe shoes).

  • Wear insect repellents on exposed skin (be mindful that these aren't always appropriate for those who are pregnant, or for children).

  • Avoid using products with strong perfumes in them.

  • Be mindful when walking around plants or rubbish outside, as wasps can congregate there.

  • Don't leave food or dirty dishes lying around, and cover food up if outdoors.

Article history

The information on this page is peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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