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Prevent a life-threatening insect bite or sting

When the weather warms up, not only do people come out from hiding, but so do insects. For those who are allergic to insect stings, sharing the great outdoors with these critters can be a recipe for disaster. 

Did you know 2 to 3 percent of the United States adult population is allergic to venomous insects? Among the most common poisonous pests are:

  • Fire ants

  • Hornets

  • Wasps

  • Yellow jackets

Prevent allergic reactions to bug bites

Alan Redding, M.D., an allergist at Piedmont, says the best immediate treatment for an allergic reaction to an insect sting is epinephrine, but he believes prevention is the safer way to go.

“Venom shots to desensitize someone who is allergic to insect stings can prevent them from ever having another allergic reaction. In fact, studies have shown these shots are 95 to 97 percent effective in preventing severe allergic reactions,” Dr. Redding says. “It’s an extremely effective therapy.”

However, he points out that venom shots are only given to people who have already had an allergic reaction to a sting or bite.

Risk factors for allergic reactions to bee stings, insect bites

Dr. Redding says the majority of patients treated with venom shots are adults because they are at a higher risk for severe reactions, while children, have a less than 1 percent chance of having a severe reaction.

What causes someone to become allergic to insect bites and stings?

  • Genetics. If you have a parent with insect allergies, then you are at a higher risk for developing this condition.

  • Exposure. If you have had an allergic reaction to an insect sting once, you are at increased risk for suffering similar or worse allergic reactions with subsequent stings. Also, if you gets stung multiple times on one occasion, you have an increased chance of having an allergic reaction in the future.

Symptoms of an allergic reaction to insect bites, bee stings

Normal bug bite reactions:

  • Pain

  • Redness at the site of the bite or sting 

  • Swelling at the site of the bite or sting

Warning signs of a more serious reaction

  • Dizziness

  • Hives

  • Lightheadedness

  • Nausea

  • Shortness of breath

  • Swelling in other areas of the body

  • Throat swelling

  • Vomiting

  • Wheezing

During an allergic reaction, these symptoms will usually start within minutes of an insect sting or bite. In these instances Dr. Redding recommends:

Fast action is key, because death can occur within 30 minutes during severe reactions.

Treatment options for insect and bee allergies

If you had a life-threatening reaction once, Dr. Redding believes you are a candidate for life-long venom shots. However, if you had a mild reaction, he usually recommends a three- to five-year treatment plan.

“After receiving shots for one day, an allergic patient will be at least partially protected from anaphylaxis. After a few months, full desensitization can be achieved. Receiving shots as infrequently as once every three months will maintain desensitization,” Dr. Redding says.

He strongly believes desensitization provides greater peace of mind than always having to be concerned about carrying an updated epinephrine auto-injector or accessing epinephrine in an emergency situation.

Fire ants: An up-and-coming threat

Originally from South America, aggressive fire ants were accidentally imported into Alabama in the 1930s and have infiltrated the country.

“Many people here have not been exposed to fire ants and don’t even know what they are,” says Dr. Redding. “Several years ago, a 65-year-old woman in Atlanta died of an allergic reaction to a fire ant that stung her at her pool. It was a very tragic event.”

He warns these venomous species of ants can cause varying degrees of reactions, including:

  • A local reaction is an instant sense of burning and itching. A raised, red welt will transition into a blister, which dissolves after a week. This is a normal reaction.

  • A large local reaction is accompanied by more severe skin irritation that may become hot and painful over the first two days after being bitten. This is not an allergic reaction.

  • An allergic reaction is characterized by hives, swelling, breathing difficulty, nausea, vomiting, lightheadedness or dizziness. If you have any of these symptoms, you should seek immediate medical attention and consult with an allergist.  

“Insect bite allergies kill 50 people each year,” says Dr. Redding. “Many of these deaths could have been prevented with venom shots. It’s an extremely effective treatment that can provide long-term protection and peace of mind.”

Learn more about allergy management and treatment.

Need to make an appointment with a Piedmont physician? Save time, book online.

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