Bee and wasp stings

Bee and wasp stings can be very painful, and can cause a dangerous allergic reaction. Find out how to avoid getting stung, and how to treat stings.

Symptoms of bee and wasp stings

A bee or wasp sting is a minor irritation for most people. Most stings itch or hurt for 1 or 2 days. The swelling may last a week.

Call your healthcare provider if you have been stung and have:

  • swelling, or have been stung, on the mouth, throat, eye, face, neck, or genitals
  • pain that cannot be controlled by self care
  • increasing pain
  • redness
  • swelling
  • red streaks leading away from the sting
  • heat
  • discharge of pus
  • a fever or chills
  • any new or worsening symptoms.

Symptoms of an allergic reaction

Symptoms of an allergic reaction include:

  • swelling around the lips and eyes
  • rapid development of a rash
  • shortness of breath or wheezing
  • chest tightness
  • severe dizziness or faints
  • persistent sneezing or coughing
  • hoarse voice
  • difficulty swallowing or throat tightness
  • signs of shock (pale skin, rapid pulse and fainting).

Some people are especially sensitive and may develop a severe allergic reaction called anaphylaxis.

Call 111 for an ambulance if you, or someone else, has been stung and has symptoms of a serious allergic reaction or anaphylaxis.

When bees and wasps sting

Honey bees and bumble bees only sting if provoked (stood on or picked up). Wasps can be aggressive and sting more than once.

Bees leave their stinger with a venom sac in your skin, but wasps do not. 

Most stings itch or hurt for 1 or 2 days. The swelling from a sting may last a week.

How to treat bee and wasp stings

Wash the area with soap and cold water. Apply an ice pack for 15 minutes to help relieve local pain and swelling

Topical creams, antihistamines and paracetamol can be useful in controlling local pain, swelling and itchiness. Inflammation may also be managed with use of a hydrocortisone cream.

For a honey bee sting, remove it as quickly as possible by scraping the stinger out using either:

  • your fingers
  • a credit card
  • the blunt side of a knife.

For advice on first aid and treatment of stings, call the National Poisons Centre on 0800 764 766

Be careful with medicines

Do not give aspirin, or products containing aspirin, to anyone 18 years or younger. There is a risk of a serious illness called Reye's syndrome. 

Do not take non-steriodal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) with food or milk to prevent stomach irritation. Do not give NSAIDs to anyone with:

  • NSAID-induced asthma
  • an increased risk of bleeding, such as ulcer disease, a bleeding disorder
  • anyone taking blood thinners (anticoagulants)
  • following surgery, significant trauma, or major dental work
  • an allergy to NSAIDS. 

How to prevent bee and wasp stings

To avoid bee and wasp stings:

  • stay well away from hives — look for bees’ flight paths
  • call an exterminator if you see any wasp nests around your home.
  • take care when eating food outdoors, especially sugary drinks and fish sandwiches, which can attract bees and wasps.
  • avoid bright coloured or dark coloured clothing
  • avoid perfumes
  • wear hats, long sleeve shirts, long pants, and light colours  If you’re hiking in bush and forest areas wear hats, long-sleeved shirts and long pants, and light colours.

If you are allergic

If you have ever had an anaphylactic reaction to a sting, you should always carry a kit containing:

  • an epipen (adrenaline)
  • ventolin (salbutamol)
  • an antihistamine.

Your healthcare provider can prescribe these for you.

Hypo-sensitisation therapy (immunotherapy) is also available. Your healthcare provider will regularly give you small amounts of bee venom to stop your body reacting so badly to it in the future.