Allergy to Stinging Insects...Can Be Life-Threatening

Medical Author: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
Medical Editor: Barbara K. Hecht, PhD

When warmer weather arrives, it is time to think about the return of stinging insects. Over 2 million Americans are allergic to stinging insects. While the severity of these allergic reactions varies greatly, they cause up to 150 deaths each year in the U.S. alone.

Stinging insects belong to the class Hymenoptera and include bees, hornets, yellow jackets, wasps, and fire ants. Fire ants, which inflict a painful sting that belies their small size, are most common in the U.S. in the southeastern states, but they may have been introduced to other geographic areas throughout the country. All of the other stinging insects are found throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Most insect stings do not cause an allergic reaction, but simply result in pain, itching, redness, and swelling at the site of the sting. Cleaning the area and application of ice packs to reduce swelling are often the only treatment needed.

Most people who do have an allergy to stinging insects have mild reactions, such as extension of the area of swelling around the sting. In a more serious reaction, a person develops hives and itching all over the body.