For most people, an insect sting means a little pain and discomfort. But some people may have trouble breathing or itch and have hives all over their body after being stung. These people are allergic to insect stings. This means that their immune system overreacts to the insect’s venom.
Most allergic insect sting reactions are caused by five kinds of insects:
- Yellow jackets
- Paper wasps
- Fire ants
For people who are very allergic to an insect’s venom, a sting may cause a dangerous allergic reaction called anaphylaxis (an-a-fi-LAK-sis).
Signs of anaphylaxis include:
- Itching and hives over a large part of the body
- Swollen throat or tongue
- Trouble breathing
- Stomach cramps
- Nausea or upset stomach
If you are allergic to insect stings, you can reduce your risk of having an allergic reaction by staying indoors during insect season and always carrying autoinjectable epinephrine. You can also talk to your allergist/immunologist about receiving immunotherapy, which can protect you the next time you are stung by an insect.
Insect sting allergy can be severe, leading to a systemic reaction called anaphylaxis. In addition, after being stung, some individuals experience other symptoms. They include:
For a small number of people with severe venom allergy, stings may be life-threatening. Severe allergic reactions to insect stings can involve many body organs and may develop rapidly. This reaction is called anaphylaxis. Symptoms of anaphylaxis may include itching and hives over large areas of the body, swelling in the throat or tongue, difficulty breathing, dizziness, stomach cramps, nausea or diarrhea. In severe cases, a rapid fall in blood pressure may result in shock and loss of consciousness. Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency, and may be fatal.
A toxic reaction can cause symptoms similar to those of an allergic reaction, including nausea, fever, swelling at the site of the sting, fainting, seizures, shock, and even death. A toxic reaction occurs when the insect venom acts like a poison in the body and may result after only one sting, but it usually takes many stings from insects that are not normally considered poisonous.
Serum sickness is an unusual reaction to a foreign substance in the body that can cause symptoms hours or days after the sting. Symptoms include fever, joint pain, other flulike symptoms, and sometimes hives.