Wasp stings

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 isn’t known to be allergic to wasps, there are many over-the-counter options he can use. Anaphylactic reactions are generally less common, affecting only about 0.5 to 3 percent of the general population. In those instances, symptoms include difficulty breathing, swelling of the throat, drop in blood pressure, and fainting. The most efficient treatments of painful sting wounds include: 

  • Over-the-counter (OTC) acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain relief 
  • OTC steroid cream (such as one percent hydrocortisone cream) to reduce itching or swelling 
  • An antihistamine (including most OTC allergy medications) to reduce hives or excessive itching 
  • A soothing paste made from baking soda and water for relief from painful itching 

Immediately after a sting, applying ice or a cold pack may also provide some relief. Wrapping ice in a cloth and not leaving it on the skin for longer than 20 minutes at a time can prevent freezing the skin. Even though it's tempting, it’s also not recommended to scratch the stings. They’re open wounds, and scratching could introduce microbes that can cause infection. 

If the pain increases or persists for more than a few days, the redness continues growing for longer than 48 hours, or the swelling is larger than 4 inches or covers the joints, it's recommended to consult a health care provider within 24 hours. Consulting immediately is recommended if signs of infection (like a fever and spreading redness) occur, there is a sting inside the mouth or on the eye, or there are a large number of stings (generally, 50 or more for teenagers and adults).  

Typically, bees and wasps only attack if provoked, but avoiding that may sometimes be difficult. Some helpful tips can include: 

  • Wear light-colored clothing when in an area where you expect there to be bees and wasps. 
  • Avoid using perfume, cologne, or other scented toiletries in said areas. 
  • Avoid areas with lots of flowering plants. 
  • 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. If you stand still, it will likely fly away on its own accord pretty quickly. If you can’t wait for the bee or wasp to leave on its own, you may wish to gently brush it away with a piece of paper — swatting will antagonize the insect and you might end up with a sting. 
  • If several bees or wasps swarm you and start stinging, running away is likely your best option, especially if you’re able to go indoors. If you aren’t, shaded areas are typically safer than open areas. Jumping into a body of water, such as a lake or pool, may not help, since some species of bees and wasps will hover above the water waiting to sting you when you resurface for air.  

If you do get stung (hopefully far fewer than 26 times!) and the stinger remains in your skin, you may wish to remove it by gently scraping it off with a fingernail or credit card edge. However, if the stinger is stuck below the surface of the skin or you aren’t able to easily remove it, it’s recommended to leave it alone since you risk damaging the skin and eventually, the stinger will come out on its own due to normal skin shedding. Keeping the area clean and dry can help prevent possible infection of the sting site. If there's swelling, increasing pain over time, pus, or other signs of infection, it’s strongly recommended to consult with a health care provider as soon as possible. 

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. The most effective option is to avoid attracting the bees and wasps in the first place, and if they just can't resist you, you may avoid further aggravation by not swatting, running, or screaming. With any luck, future bee and wasp encounters will end in peaceful coexistence. 

Last updated Sep 24, 2021
Originally published Nov 22, 2002

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