Insect Sting Allergies Update

As we enter into Spring, not only should allergy-sensitive individuals be on the lookout for those annoying pollen allergy symptoms, but they should be aware of their surroundings for venomous flying insects. In the Washington, DC, Maryland, and Northern Virginia metropolitan area, the most common venomous flying insects are honey bees, wasps, yellow jackets, white-faced hornets, and yellow-faced hornets. The summer months are the peak months that insect stings occur. In the U.S., about 3% of the population experience allergic reactions to the venom of flying insect stings. Approximately a half a million individuals seek emergency room care every year for insect sting reactions in the U.S. Unfortunately, there are roughly 50 deaths reported each year from these insect sting reactions.

Honey bees live in “honeycombs” or colonies that are found in crevices of buildings or in hollow trees. Yellow jackets, on the other hand, generally nest underground and are rarely seen in the cracks in buildings or in trees. Hornets produce brown or grey oval-shaped nests above the ground which are typically located in the branches of trees or in shrubs. Wasps make nests that are made up of a paper-like material which may also be found in shrubs, but are also common under eaves and behind window shutters.

Honey bees, wasps, yellow jackets, white-faced hornets, and yellow-faced hornets all inject their venom into their subjects when they sting their prey. If a sensitive individual has an allergic reaction to a sting, they may develop either a local reaction or they may develop a more serious systemic reaction. A local reaction usually entails redness, itching, and/or swelling at the site of the sting. A systemic reaction, on the other hand, may include generalized itching, hives, swelling, chest tightness, shortness of breath, wheezing, throat tightening, abdominal cramping, fainting, and/or a drop in blood pressure. Patients with reactions are prescribed self-injectable epinephrine devices (e.g. EpiPen, Auvi-Q, Adrenaclick) so that they can be used immediately. A person who has used a self-injectable epinephrine device should immediately go to the closest emergency room.

After a sting, in some instances, an individual may have toxic (i.e., non-allergic) reaction instead of an allergic reaction, particularly if stung by several insects at once. In a toxic reaction, the body reacts to the venom as if it was a poison. This typically occurs because the individual is exposed to an over-abundance of venom at one time. A toxic reaction may cause symptoms similar to those of an allergic reaction, but in addition, may cause non-allergic symptoms such as nausea, fever, and/or seizures.

It is interesting to note that of all the venomous flying insects mentioned above, only the honey bee leaves the sting in the victim. If you are stung by a honey bee and notice the stinger stuck in your skin, you should not pull it out, as doing so may cause more of the venom to be introduced into your body. The recommended way to remove the stinger is to scrape it off with something like your fingernails, a credit card, or other flat surface. It should also be noted that honey bees will die after stinging their victims because their stingers have barbs. After stinging, as the bees try to withdraw their stingers from their prey, their abdomens rupture causing a large hole which causes the demise of the bees. It is also interesting to be aware that, in general, bumblebees do not sting. They can sting but it is uncommon. They tend to sting only when the feel threatened. Since a bumblebee’s stinger has no barbs and is therefore smooth, it does not die after stinging its prey, since their abdomens are not ruptured after stinging. Another interesting fact is that only female bumblebees can sting, as their stingers are used as a modified egg-laying device which is only present in females.

One other well-known venomous insect to bring up is the fire ant. Fire ants bite their victims. The typical reaction to a fire ant is that of a local burning pain with an accompanying red bump that can turn into a white fluid-filled pustule within a day or two. Occasionally individuals are very sensitive to the venom and will manifest systemic symptoms such as generalized itching, hives, swelling, chest tightness, shortness of breath, wheezing, throat tightening, abdominal cramping, fainting, and/or a drop in blood pressure, just like with venomous flying insects. Fire ants of course do not fly. In addition, they do not pose a large threat to residents of the Washington, DC metro area because they live in the warmer climates of the southern U.S., although they have been found in Virginia and Maryland. At least for now, fire ants are not prevalent as far north as Washington, DC, but who knows what will happen in the future, especially if global warming takes more of a stronghold.

The diagnosis of a venomous insect sting allergy is performed by board certified allergy specialist like the ones at Black & Kletz Allergy. The allergy doctor will complete a comprehensive history and physical examination. Depending on the patient’s history, allergy testing to flying insects is usually the next recommended step. Allergy testing is usually performed by allergy skin testing, although blood testing is occasionally done depending on the patient’s history.

The treatment of venomous flying insect sting allergy consists of venom immunotherapy (i.e., allergy desensitization, allergy shots, allergy injections). If the results of the skin testing are positive to any of the stinging insect venoms, it is highly recommended that the patient complete a course of venom allergy immunotherapy as it is extremely effective in preventing further anaphylactic reactions from venomous flying insect stings. Venom allergy immunotherapy involves receiving increasingly greater doses and volumes of insect venom to the patient weekly over a period of 10 weeks, then every 2 weeks for 1 dose, then every 3 weeks for 1 dose, then a maintenance dose every 4 weeks for 1 year, and then the maintenance dose can be reduced to every 6 weeks for several more years. This maintenance dose is roughly equivalent to the amount of venom in an actual sting of a flying insect. In addition to venom immunotherapy, all patients who are allergic to any of the venomous flying insects should carry a self-injectable epinephrine devices (e.g. EpiPen, Auvi-Q, Adrenaclick) as mentioned above. A patient who has used a self-injectable epinephrine device should immediately go to the closest emergency room.

The board certified allergists at Black & Kletz Allergy have expertise in diagnosing and treating venomous flying insect allergies. We are board certified to treat both adult and pediatric patients and have been doing so in the Washington, DC, Northern Virginia, and Maryland metropolitan area for more than 50 years. Black & Kletz Allergy has offices in Washington, DC, McLean, VA (Tysons Corner, VA), and Manassas, VA. All 3 of our offices have on-site parking. For further convenience, our Washington, DC and McLean, VA offices are Metro accessible. Our McLean office location offers a complementary shuttle that runs between our office and the Spring Hill metro station on the silver line. For an appointment, please call our office or alternatively, you can click Request an Appointment and we will respond within 24 hours by the next business day. If you suffer from insect sting allergies, Black & Kletz Allergy is dedicated to providing the highest quality allergy care in a comfortable, thoughtful, and professional environment.