Insect Stings and Bites



Insects that sting belong to the order Hymenoptra.  The families within this group include Vespidae (e.g. yellow jackets, wasps, & hornets), Apidae (honeybees & bumblebees), and Formicidae (fire ants).  Insects tend to sting primarily as self-defense or to protect their nests, however, members of the Vespidae family as well as Africanized honeybees are occasionally more aggressive and might sting to obtain food. 

The stinging apparatus, called the aculeus, is found only on females.  The aculeus has a variable number of barbs—depending on the species—that results in its becoming stuck in the flesh of the animal into which it was impaled, allowing for a prolonged release of venom from the attached sac.  Once stuck in its victim, the detachment of the aculeus results in the death of the insect.  Species with fewer barbs, however, can sting multiple times.  Fire ants can grasp onto their victims with their pinchers, allowing them to sting repeatedly. 

The stinger of a black honey bee, torn from the bee's body and attached to a protective dressing http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bee_sting

Removing the aculeus after it has been impaled is necessary to both minimize venom injection and to prevent foreign body reactions; ideally removal should be done in less than 2 seconds, as this is the length of time it takes for venom to empty from the attached sac.   

The reaction to a sting is due to changes in permeability of blood vessels and to the reaction produced to the introduction of protein antigens that may lead to the production of IgE.


Reactions to Stings

Localized reactions 

  • Can be divided into uncomplicated and large local reactions
    • Uncomplicated local reactions usually cause pain at the site and localized swelling and redness 1-5 cm in diameter and resolve within approximately 2 days; these should be treated with cold compresses

large local_0.jpg
Uncomplicated local reaction 1 day later. 

  • Large local reactions slowly enlarge over 48 hours and can reach over 10 cm in diameter and resolve over 5-10 days; these are often well treated with cold compresses and NSAIDs, anthistamines, topical steroids, and even a single oral dose of 40-60 mg prednisone have been shown to be helpful for patients in whom the reaction is especially worrisome or in a sensitive area
  • Fire ant stings might present with pustules, these should not be opened to prevent secondary infection. 
  • May represent an IgE mediated reaction; individuals with large reactions often have positive skin tests. 



  • There are no reliable predictors of who will react with an anaphylactic reaction.  50% of deaths occur in individuals with no past history of severe reactions to stings.   The incidence of anaphylaxis is rare in subsequent stings, and immunoprophylaxis is not recommended.
  • Often there is a history of atopy, and there is a higher incidence in young males, which may reflect an increased exposure. 
  • There is little cross reactivity between Vespid and Apis venom
  • Manifestations
    1. Diffuse urticaria
    2. Flushing
    3. Angioedema
    4. Laryngeal edema
    5. Bronchospasm
    6. Circulatory collapse

Allergic angioedema: this child is unable to open his eyes due to the swelling https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angioedema

  • Diagnostic tests for reactions to insect stings include skin tests with venom specific or mixed vespid venom.  Systemic reactions to skin tests are rare.  Radioallergosorbent tests, a measure of specific IgE, are available but are less sensitive and more expensive than skin testing.
  • Anaphylaxis Treatment
    • Initial ABC's - Oxygen, airway protection and intubation if necessary, fluid maintenance if there is circulatory collapse. 
    • Subcutaneous 1/1000 epinephrine given immediately
    • Antihistamines 
    • If there is no response to initial treatment, IV steroids may be necessary.


Prevention of Stings

  • Decrease exposure with clothing, wearing dark colors, decrease use of fragrances when outside, and use of insect repellents
  • Be careful when cooking outside because of attraction of insects
  • Bracelets to identify individual as reactors to stings.
  • Immunotherapy
    1. Immunotherapy may be given at intervals for up to three years.  Reversion to a negative skin test is a good marker of successful treatment
    2. It should be considered particularly in the case of bee stings.  The mechanism is to increase the amount of IgG specific anti-venom and lower the amount of IgE. This is highly effective and repeated stings have lead to anaphylaxis in only 2% of patients.
  • Epi-Pen kits should be kept on the person and at their school for use if needed.  Note now Auvi-Q is available, an audio voice recorded autoinjector that walks families through how to administer it  Click below on the Video to show families how to use the autoinjectors BELOW.




Other Bites

  • Unlike stings, bites from insects such as mosquitoes, cause only localized swelling and pruritis.  Anaphylactic reactions are very unusual.
  • Local care measures such as topical steroids and antihistamines are usually sufficient.



  1. Golden D et al. Outcomes of Allergy to Insect Stings in Children, with and without Venom Immunotherapy.  NEJM Vol 351 No. 7 August 12, 2004
  2. Zirngibl, Gwen, and Heather L. Burrows. Hymenoptera Stings. Pediatrics in Review 33.11 (2012): 534-535.
  3. Freeman T. Hypersensitivity to Hymenoptera Stings. NEJM Nov 4, 2004
  4. Booker G. Insect Stings.  Pediatrics in Review. October 2005
  5. UK National Institute for Health and Care Institute. Insect Bites and Stings. Last accessed April 2013.
  6. Demain, Jeffrey G., Ashley A. Minaei, and James M. Tracy. Anaphylaxis and insect allergy. Current opinion in allergy and clinical immunology 10.4 (2010): 318-322.