Wasp stings

Originally Published: November 22, 2002 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: August 8, 2008
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Dear Alice,

My husband was stung by, at best count, 26 guinea wasps. What would be the best treatment for the stings, which are very painful?

Dear Reader,

Holy beehive!! Assuming that your husband is not known to be allergic to wasps (something that's quite rare, affecting only about 0.1 percent of the general population; symptoms would include difficulty breathing, swelling of the throat, and fainting), the most efficient treatments of painful sting wounds include:

  • Over-the-counter (OTC) acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain relief
  • An antihistamine for excessive itching — for example, diphenhydramine, also available OTC
  • A soothing cream, such as calamine lotion or a paste made from baking soda and water, which can "cool" down the skin and relieve painful itching

Immediately after a sting, applying ice may also provide some relief. Ice needs to be wrapped in a cloth to prevent freezing the skin. Keep the ice on the sting for no more than 20 minutes every hour. You might also try using an aerosol or cream antihistamine that has a skin coolant in it. Ask at the pharmacy if you're not sure which ones are best. Even though it's tempting, don't scratch the stings. They are open wounds, and scratching could introduce microbes that can cause infection.

Normally, if the pain increases or persists for more than a few days, is not alleviated by pain relief medication, or spreads, it's time to consult a health care provider. However, in your husband's case, since he has more than 10 stings, he might want to consult a health care provider right away given the high number of actual wounds.

In the future, you and he can think about how to avoid wasp and bee stings. The key is not to attract the bees and wasps, and if they are attracted, not to provoke them. Some helpful tips:

  • Avoid brightly colored or patterned clothing when in an area where you expect there to be bees and wasps.
  • Avoid using perfume or cologne in said areas.
  • Don't walk barefoot across plants, especially clover and blooming ground clover (a favorite of bees).
  • If a bee or wasp does land on you, it's probably just interested in a smell or wants a little sip of water (your sweat), so don't swat at it. Stand still and it should fly away on its own accord. If you cannot wait for the bee or wasp to leave on its own, then gently brush it away with a piece of paper — swatting will antagonize the insect and you might end up with a sting.
  • Before jumping into the pool, check to make sure there aren't any bees or wasps trapped on the water (they make for particularly unhappy and easily antagonized stingers).

If you do get stung (hopefully far fewer than 26 times!) and the stinger remains in your skin, you need to remove it as soon as possible. You may have heard some people advise scraping it off rather than pulling, but there is no real basis for this. A study was done by researchers at the University of California and Pennsylvania State University that showed no difference between pulling and scraping, but the weals (sting wounds) were smaller the shorter the amount of time the stinger was present in the skin.

Some other things you might hear recommended: using meat tenderizer or anti-perspirant to help the swelling after being stung by a bee. If this makes you feel better, great; but, there is no real science that supports using these items. You're better off with calamine lotion or the baking soda-water paste. To prevent possible infection of the sting site, keep the area clean and dry. If there's swelling, increasing pain over time, pus, and/or other signs of infection, it is important see a health care provider.

The next time you find yourself face-to-face with a bee or wasp that's got it in for you, remember that prevention is the key. Avoid attracting the bees and wasps, and if they just can't resist you, do not aggravate them by swatting, running, and/or screaming. They'll probably leave you alone.