Beyond the Sting:
What You Should Know About Insect Allergies
A General Overview
Insect allergies, from bites and stings, are a problem for many people. Sad to say: if you are a resident of the state of Georgia, you are particularly at risk from insect bites and stings. There are many types of biting and stinging insects in Georgia. The comparatively year-round, warm and humid climate provides a most hospitable environment for stinging critters such as:
- Wasps (particularly the red wasp, paper wasp, potter wasp, pollen wasp varieties)
- Bees (particularly the honey bee, bumblebee, carpenter bee, sweat bee varieties)
- Yellow Jackets
- Fire Ants: These are the main culprit when it comes to triggering serious allergic reactions. More on their stings and proper treatment below!
- Carpenter Ants
For most people, an insect sting or bite typically elicits an initial exclamatory “ouch,” followed soon after by a slight, localized swelling, some redness and a rather irritating itchiness. The symptoms are short-lived, however: within a few days, very little evidence remains of the vermin’s bite or sting.
On the other hand, if you belong to the rather small percentage of the population that is allergic to insect stings and bites, the insect allergy reaction takes on a more serious note. The repercussions can extend far beyond the sting or bite. Insect allergies can range from extreme pain and discomfort to life threatening symptoms. Each year, a number of people die from allergic reactions to the venom from insect stings/bites.
Insect Venom and the Immune System’s Response
Insects employ their venom to either paralyze their prey for food, or as a defense mechanism. When you get stung, the insect’s stinger releases venom into your blood, and the circulatory system carries it around the body via blood vessels that have become dilated. The venom acts on blood and nerve cells, often triggering a powerful response from the immune system. The over-reaction by the immune system leads to a whole cascade of symptoms.
Symptoms of a Serious Allergic Reaction to Stings/Bites
Severe symptoms, which are generally referred to as anaphylaxis, include the following:
- Hives/urticaria: it is terribly itchy and can move about to different parts of the body.
- Swelling/angioedema: this can occur all over your body, or it may be confined to the face, lips and tongue.
- Breathing difficulties.
- Lightheadedness and confusion: some people become so dizzy, they pass out.
- Abdominal pain, nausea and diarrhea.
- A rapid drop in blood pressure.
- Cardiac arrest/heart attack.
Insect Bites and Stings
Insect Bite Allergies & Treatment
When you add bites from the oh so ubiquitous mosquitoes to the mix of pests, life outdoors seems akin to insect warfare. Were you aware that mosquitoes find some victims more appetizing than others? Apparently, some of us have a genetic pre-disposition to getting bitten. The blood-suckers have a rather acute sense of smell, and they are attracted to the odors that we exude.
Mosquitoes can detect the carbon dioxide in our breath when we exhale, even from an impressive distance. Some of us give off more carbon dioxide than others. Mosquitoes are also attracted by the lactic acid that emanates from our sweat glands. So, outdoor exercisers, avid gardeners and outdoor workers should be mindful of this in areas where mosquitoes are plentiful.
Insect Sting Allergies & Treatment
The first rule of treatment is to carefully remove the stinger and the venom sac, if possible. Never squeeze the area, because doing so could cause the venom to spread. Use tweezers instead!
Insect allergy treatments include an epinephrine injection. Epinephrine is the naturally-occurring hormone, adrenaline, which eases the effects of an allergic reaction.
Other treatment options include the administration of IV/intravenous fluids as well as oxygen to facilitate respiration if breathing is compromised in any way.
Fire ant stings can cause a severe and systemic allergic reaction. The symptoms include breathing difficulties and potential unconsciousness. In such cases, urgent medical care is required.
If you suffer a life-threatening reaction to a fire ant sting, there is a 60 percent chance that you will suffer the same fate if you should be bitten by a fire ant in the future. As such, it is important that you undergo immunotherapy / allergy shot.
An allergy shot dramatically reduces your chances of a serious reaction to a fire ant sting. The chance of a recurrence of symptoms falls to less than 5 percent after immunotherapy. Ask you allergist about this!
Measures to Protect Yourself
If you experience insect allergies from any type of venom, or if you have ever experienced an unpleasant and/or frightening reaction to insect stings or bites, you do not have to live in fear of future encounters with the critters. There are a number of proven protective measures you can take. Let us call them the nine rules of self protection:
- Keep all food and drinks covered when dining outside. Be especially careful about open soda cans: stinging insects might fly inside the cans.
- Do not wear perfumes or other fragrant products on your body or clothes.
- Always wear shoes when outdoors. Imagine if you stepped on a striped fiend with your bare foot.
- Wear only light colored clothing. Insects are attracted to bright colors.
- Wear work gloves, socks, long-sleeved tops/shirts and long pants when you work outdoors.
- If someone nearby gets stung, give that person a wide berth. One sting is like a call to attack, bringing other stinging insects into the immediate area in double quick time.
- If you suffer from a life-threatening insect allergy, ask a board-certified allergist if you should carry an EpiPen. He or she can show you how to inject yourself. Using an EpiPen at the first sign of adverse symptoms will lessen the chance of anaphylactic shock.
- Take great care when in wooded areas, near shrubs and bushes, around garbage bins and in attics and under eaves.
- Hire a professional exterminator to spray for pests — and to remove nests.
If you know you have an insect allergies, or if you suspect you have such an allergy and would like to learn more about the identification and treatment of insect allergies, the medical personnel at an allergy clinic will answer your questions and address any concerns you may have.
An allergist can use an intra-dermal skin test, a skin-prick test, or a blood test to determine if you are allergic to insect venom. It is always best to veer on the side of caution. Your health, nay, your life is too important!