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Bee, Wasp, and Ant Stings

Insect bites differ from insect stings. A bite is when an insect (like a mosquito, flea, or bedbug) uses its mouth to break a person’s skin, usually so it can feed. Insect bites usually itch. A sting is when an insect uses another body part, such as a barbed stinger at its tail end, to pierce the skin and inject venom (like a poison). They usually do this in self-defense. Stings are more painful than bites.

Insects that can sting include:

Bees: These fuzzy insects feed on flowers. There are thousands of different types of bees, and they can be many different colors. The most familiar kind is the honeybee. These bees build nests out of wax in old trees and manmade hives. They collect nectar and pollen from flowers, then turn it into honey for food.

Wasps: While closely related to bees, wasps are not fuzzy. They’re smoother and have skinnier bodies. Wasps eat other insects, spiders, or human food (which is why they often hang around picnics or compost piles). Their nests are papery and made from chewed-up wood fibers.

Ants: These small insects can be brown, black, or red. Some have wings and others don't. Some ants can sting, like the fire ant. Fire ants are tiny and reddish-brown and live in underground nests.

What Are the Signs of Insect Stings?

A sting site:

  • will feel hot
  • may itch
  • can look like a red bump surrounded by white skin. This usually clears up in a few hours, but sometimes the swelling can last a few days.

Wasps and many bees can sting more than once because they can pull out their stinger without injuring themselves. Honeybees have special hooks on their stinger that keep it in the skin after they sting someone. The stinger is torn out of the bee's body as it tries to fly away. As a result, the honeybee dies after stinging.

A person who’s stung by a fire ant will feel a sharp pain and burning. Someone who steps on a fire ant mound will get a lot of stings at once because the ants are disturbed where they all live together. Each sting will turn into an itchy white blister over the next day.

Handling a Bee, Wasp, or Ant Sting

Insect stings can cause temporary discomfort and pain, but most don’t lead to serious or lasting health problems.

Here’s how to handle a sting at home:

  • If a bee left behind its stinger, try to remove it as quickly as possible using a scraping motion, without pinching the venom sac at the end. 
  • Wash the area carefully with soap and water. Do this two to three times a day until the skin heals.
  • Apply an ice pack wrapped in a cloth or a cold, wet washcloth for a few minutes.
  • Give acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain.
  • For itching, give an over-the-counter oral antihistamine if your child's health care provider says it's OK. Follow the package instructions for your child's age and weight. You could also apply a corticosteroid cream or calamine lotion to the sting area.

Get medical care if:

  • Your child has a sting anywhere in the mouth. Get medical care right away because it can quickly cause severe swelling that may block airways.
  • You notice a large skin rash or swelling around the sting site, or if swelling or pain lasts for more than 3 days, which could be signs of an infection.

Use an epinephrine auto-injector if it's available and call 911 if you see any signs of a serious or potentially life-threatening allergic reaction, such as

  • wheezing or trouble breathing
  • tightness in the throat or chest
  • swollen lips, tongue, or face
  • dizziness or fainting
  • nausea or vomiting

How Can We Prevent Insect Stings?

To protect your family from bee, wasp, and ant stings:

  • Wear shoes and socks when walking on grass, even if it's just for a minute. Bees and wasps can sting unprotected feet.
  • Wear gloves when gardening.
  • Don't wear sweet-smelling perfume, lotions, or hair products.
  • Don't disturb hives or insect nests.
  • Don't swat at buzzing insects — they will sting if they feel threatened. Just stay calm and slowly walk away from them.
  • When you’re outdoors, especially if flowering plants are in the area, wear light-colored clothing that covers the body as much as possible. Avoid colorful or flower-printed clothing.
  • When eating outdoors, keep food and drinks in closed containers and cover trash cans. Look closely at cans or straws before drinking.

What Else Should I Know?

Parents should know the signs of an infection or allergic reaction, and when to get medical care. If your child has a history of insect sting problems, tell all caregivers so they know what to do if a bee or wasp sting happens.

If your child had an allergic reaction to a bee or wasp sting in the past, talk to the doctor about a prescription for an epinephrine auto-injector.