While bees are cheerful, much-needed helpers in our ecosystem, they can be very dangerous to people who are allergic to their venom. We should also be mindful of the risk of getting caught off guard by an allergic reaction to a bee sting. This is why it’s important to be aware of the allergy symptoms and treatment protocols.

For most of us, a bee sting is likely to lead to temporary pain and discomfort. Think instant, sharp burning pain, a red welt, a small white spot at the puncture site or slight swelling in the surrounding area.

And while these common symptoms tend to go away within a few hours, some of us might have more moderate reactions. An example would be prolonged, extreme redness and swelling at the sting site. The swelling and redness might even increase over the next day or two after the sting, but it tends to resolve over five to 10 days. Medical professionals refer to this as large localised reactions, and only about 10% of these reactions progress to more adverse reactions.

But it’s the more severe reactions to bee stings that are particularly concerning. A small percentage of people experience potentially life-threatening reactions – also referred to as anaphylaxis – which requires emergency treatment.

Signs and symptoms of severe reactions to bee stings include:
  • Skin reactions such as urticaria (hives);
  • Itching, flushed or pale skin;
  • Difficulty breathing;
  • Swelling of the throat and tongue;
  • A weak, rapid pulse;
  • Nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea;
  • Dizziness or fainting;
  • Loss of consciousness.
How to treat normal to moderate reactions

If you or someone around you gets stung by a bee, it’s important to stay calm and carefully walk away from the area where more bee attacks might take place. If the bee’s stinger or stinging apparatus it’s still present – you will need to scrape it off immediately, because it contains a venom sac. You can do this with the edge of your fingernail, credit card, blunt knife or a similar object. It’s critical to avoid squeezing the venom sac as this will increase the venom exposure. Once you have done this, it’s essential to cleanse the affected area.

The application of ice or cold packs to the affected area as well as soothing creams will help with the pain and discomfort. Treatment for moderate reactions usually involves the administration of antihistamine medications. In addition to this, steroid medications can also reduce inflammation.

 Treatment for severe reactions

The treatment of choice for life-threatening anaphylactic reactions is Adrenalin (Epinephrine).

Once administered, the person experiencing the reaction should immediately go to the nearest emergency room for further treatment or monitoring. Adrenalin auto-injectors should be readily available at home, at work or at school if a patient is known to have a severe bee allergy.

If you or your loved one is allergic to bee venom, it’s crucial that you, your family and colleagues know how to use an auto-injector.

It might also be a good idea to have adrenalin auto-injectors available in first aid kits at public spaces like schools and offices, where the risk of first-time allergic reactions is always a reality. In countries like Canada, this is mandatory.

Once bitten, twice shy

Individuals who are at the most significant risk of further severe reactions to bee venom are those who have experienced it previously (e.g., difficulty breathing, drop in blood pressure). Adults are at higher risk than children.

If you or your loved one previously experienced severe reaction a bee, wasp or insect stings, it’s advisable to get an accurate diagnosis. This will entail going through your health history with an allergy doctor or medical professional, followed by allergy testing to establish the cause if necessary.

Long term treatment

Doctors sometimes recommend immunotherapy for patients with a history of severe allergic reactions to stings. In this treatment, a series of “allergy shots” known as immunotherapy, is used to provide low-dose exposure to the venom. This allows the body to gradually build a resistance to the venom, ultimately reducing the risk of an allergic reaction in the long run.

If you’re interested in this treatment, you need to know that immunotherapy for bee venom is not a quick fix: It requires a long-term commitment from the patient, ranging over three to five years. But if you see it through, immunotherapy may significantly reduce the chance of future severe allergic reactions, providing peace of mind to you and your loved ones.

  • There has been a dramatic drop in the population of bees globally. This is a serious concern because they play a crucial role in our ecosystem to pollinate our plants and crops. If you happen to have an unwanted bee-hive in your vicinity, please don’t try to poison or destroy it. Contact your nearest beekeeper to safely remove the hive and relocate and establish the colony in an area where the bees can do pollination work. Click here for contact details in Johannesburg and surrounds.
  • The purpose of this article is to raise awareness of allergies and the treatment options that are available for it. This article should by no means be used, or viewed, as a primary source for medical advice. Please arrange for a personal consultation with your medical practitioner before taking any decisions that could affect the wellbeing of you or your loved ones. Read our medical disclaimer for more information.

© 2018 | Dr Marinda McDonald | Practice number 0015393 | All rights reserved


Marinda McDonald

Dr Marinda McDonald has offered specialised treatments for allergies for most of her professional career. Read more about her on the home page of this website (allergydoc.co.za).

3 Comments

Kelly · March 28, 2019 at 6:15 pm

The best way to deal with a bee sting is to scrape it off with a sideways motion using a firm object such as the blade of a knife, a credit card or even a fingernail.

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