Wasps are a class of stinging insects that includes yellow jackets and hornets. Their sting can be incredibly painful—and can even trigger allergic reactions in people sensitive to their stings. During the warm season, wasp stings are common, particularly because wasps live in and fly near homes and places where people congregate, such as parks.
When pestered by a flying insect, it’s helpful to know what type of creature is accosting you. Bees, for example, have one stinger, so, at worst, they can only sting you once. Wasps, however, do not lose their stingers in human skin as bees do, so they can sting multiple times. Wasps vary in appearance. Yellow jackets are black and yellow while bald-faced hornets are black and white. In the U.S. alone, there are more than 4,000 types of wasps.
Social wasps—those that live together— tend to pose the greatest risk to humans. If a human disturbs a wasp nest, they risk an attack from the many inhabitants of that nest—not just a single insect. Wasps are aggressive and will aggressively swarm to protect their nest. Yellow jackets are among the most common types of wasps that swarm. To avoid getting stung, be sure to avoid their nests and take care if removing them.
The sting of a wasp can be very painful. Even though wasps do not leave their stingers embedded in the skin as bees do, the sting produces considerable swelling and irritation. People may experience sharp pain at the sting site and a burning sensation. Redness and itching are common symptoms, as well. A white mark is usually visible in the midst of the redness, which is where the wasp’s stinger punctured the skin.
Severe symptoms may not be life-threatening—just extremely uncomfortable. While mild reactions to stings may fade after a couple of hours, a severe reaction could cause discomfort for a few days after the sting. Aside from redness, swelling, and pain, the person might feel nauseous and even vomit. Typically, a severe reaction like this will subside after two to three days, though people who are more reactive may feel unwell for a week. If symptoms continue beyond this point, it is best to see a doctor.
In sensitive individuals, a wasp sting can trigger anaphylaxis if the venom in the sting triggers the body to go into shock. This can happen quite quickly and cause symptoms like swelling of the face and throat, drop in blood pressure, difficulty breathing, racing or weak pulse, nausea, diarrhea, dizziness, stomach cramps, or loss of consciousness. If these symptoms occur in association with a sting, the individual requires emergency medical help.
If you’ve had a severe reaction to stings in the past, you may be required to carry a medical kit with you that includes an emergency injection of a special neurotransmitter and hormone. People who have had an anaphylactic reaction to a sting in the past are as much as 60% more likely to have one in the future if stung again. The handheld injection helps the body restore heart and breathing rates to normal.
Typically, people can treat stings that cause mild or even moderate symptoms at home. First, it is helpful to wash the sting site with soap and water to help remove venom from the site. The site should be kept clean throughout the healing process to avoid infection. If swelling and pain occur, an ice pack can help alleviate these symptoms. Once swelling decreases, cover the sting with a bandage.
If an ice pack doesn’t effectively alleviate swelling or itching, a synthetic cortisol cream on the sting site. Calamine lotion can also decrease the itching and soothe the area. These creams are available over the counter and many people keep them on hand in their home first aid kits. Symptoms that don't subsite or sting sites that are especially painful or swollen may require medical care.
Taking an antihistamine can also alleviate itching and possibly even the swelling associated with a wasp sting. These over-the-counter medications do have some side effects, including drowsiness, so people should take them with care, and speak to a physician or pharmacist if they are taking other medications as well.
Over-the-counter pain relievers can help alleviate the pain of a wasp sting. Some people may choose to get a tetanus shot following a sting, especially if it has been more than ten years since last receiving one. If your symptoms worsen or do not get better, be sure to consult a doctor.
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