How Do I Know if I am Allergic to Stinging Insects?

In the Lowcountry there are a variety of insects that can bite and sting and many people are concerned whether they could be allergic.  Although bites and stings can be quite uncomfortable, the good news is most people are not allergic. Biting insects such as mosquitoes and gnats can lead to itchy bumps of varying sizes depending on a person’s sensitivity, but it is very unusual for a person to be allergic or at risk for more serious or life threatening reactions.  

On the other hand, stinging insects inject a small amount of venom when they sting and people who develop an allergy to that venom are at risk for potentially serious and life threatening reactions to future stings.  Stinging insects include honeybees, wasps, hornets, yellow jackets, and fire ants.

In the Lowcountry, fire ants cause a majority of stinging insect allergies. Fire ants are very aggressive and lead to much more frequent stings than other stinging insects. If you happen upon 15-20 bees, they will not sting you unless provoked and typically you will only be stung by one or two bees. Fire ants are extremely aggressive and if you find yourself standing on a fire ant mound, they will attack you in a coordinated fashion together.

One is not born allergic to stinging insects, rather you develop an allergy after getting stung.  Normal sting reactions can lead to some degree of pain, swelling, and/or redness at the site of the sting.  Signs of a possible allergic reaction would consist of additional systemic symptoms such as throat swelling, cough, difficulty breathing, dizziness, or hives and swelling in areas other than the sting site.  

People who have had a possible allergic reaction to an insect sting should be seen and evaluated by a board certified allergist to have testing done to evaluate the presence of allergic IgE antibodies to the venom. Along with testing and a detailed history, we can accurately diagnose a venom allergy.  People who are found to be allergic to insect venom have an approximately 60% chance of having a potentially life threatening allergic reaction with each future sting. These people should be taught how to avoid future stings, prescribed epinephrine autoinjectors in case of a reaction, have an anaphylaxis action plan, and should be considered for a course of venom immunotherapy.

Venom immunotherapy also known as allergy shots to venom can be a lifesaving treatment for patients with venom allergy.  It involves administering gradually increasing doses of venom extract to decrease a patient’s sensitivity.  Once a patient builds up to the full maintenance dose, he or she then receives that dose every 4-8 weeks usually for a period of 3-5 years in order to gain lasting protection after they stop the venom injections.  This can decrease the risk for an allergic reaction to a future sting from around 60% down to less than 5%!

If you think you might be allergic to a stinging insect, please give us a call so we can help.

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