Pediatric Respiratory and Immunology Center
Hasbro Children's Hospital

Stinging Insect Allergy

What is a Stinging Insect Allergy?

Insect bites and stings can cause an immediate immune response. The bite from fire ants and the sting from bees, wasps, and hornets can trigger severe reactions.    

Child with an insect bite

When to Call 911 for an Insect Sting

Call 911 if a person who has been stung experiences:

• Wheezing or difficulty breathing 

• Swelling anywhere on the face or in the mouth (tongue)

• Throat constriction or difficulty swallowing/speaking

• Sudden weakness

• Turning blue

• Loss of consciousness 

What Causes a Stinging Insect Allergy?

Insects inject a toxin when they sting that triggers an immune reaction. For some individuals, a sting means a few days of discomfort. Others may experience a life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis.

What Are the Typical Signs and Symptoms of a Local Reaction at the Site of a Sting?

Typical symptoms of an insect sting include:

  • Pain
  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Itching
  • Burning
  • Numbness
  • Tingling

What Can I Do to Treat an Insect Sting?

In most cases, bites and stings can be easily treated at home.

  • Remove the stinger by scraping the edge of a credit card across it. Don’t use tweezers, as you may accidentally squeeze more of the venom into the skin. Wash the spot with soap and water.
  • Place a cold compress on the site.
  • Give your child an oral antihistamine or apply a topical cortisone cream to reduce itching.
  • Keep an eye on the sting site for several days to check for signs of infection such as increasing redness, swelling, or pain.

What Treatment is Available for a Stinging Insect Allergy?

If the swelling extends far beyond the immediate sting site — affecting the whole arm or leg, for example — you should take your child to a medical provider, as oral cortisone may be required.

Some individuals may have severe or life-threatening reactions. It has been estimated that anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction, occurs in 0.4 to 0.8 percent of children and three percent of adults. Insect sting anaphylaxis causes at least 90 to 100 deaths annually.

If a person who has had an insect bite or sting shows any symptoms of anaphylaxis, immediate emergency treatment is needed.

If your child has a severe, body-wide reaction to a bee or other sting, he or she should see an allergist for evaluation and immunotherapy (allergy shots). An emergency epinephrine auto-injector should always be on hand.

Learn about treatment at Lifespan for more pediatric asthma and allergy conditions