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Taking the sting out of insect allergies

ADC allergist Dr. Thomas Smith offers advice on insect bites, stings and allergies to Texas bugs.

hornet on fruit peel on ground

Spend even a short amount of time outside during the warmer months, and chances are you’ll encounter one of the many bugs who also live in Texas. Wasps, bees, yellow jackets, hornets, and fire ants are just a few of the six-legged critters that can sting with a vengeance.

Pain, redness, itching, and mild swelling at the site of the sting are the most common symptoms of insect bites, and for most people, these issues will fade after a few days. But not everyone is so lucky.

Insect allergies explained

For an estimated 2 million Americans, the venom from insect stings can induce serious allergic reactions. Symptoms may include hives, flushed skin, nausea, vomiting, or even life-threatening reactions. More serious reactions include difficulty breathing, dizziness, and fainting. In extreme cases, people with severe allergic reactions may develop anaphylaxis, which can be fatal if not treated immediately. Each year, about 50 people in the U.S. die from insect sting allergies.

There are tests that can check for venom allergies, says Dr. Smith.

“We can give patients anallergy test that puts a small amount of insect venom on the skin,” Dr. Smith explains. “This test can quickly show which insect venoms you are allergic to, and how severe your allergy is.”

Avoidance is key

For those who already know they are allergic to insect stings, the best advice is to simply avoid those insects. Staying indoors can help. When you do venture outside, common sense can go a long way. Don’t go walking barefoot if you know there may be fire ants crawling around. If you see a wasp nest in the backyard, get away and have it removed by a professional. Wear clothing that isn’t brightly colored, and when possible be sure it covers your arms, chest, and legs. And don’t use perfume or cologne, because certain scents may attract stinging insects.

Treatment options

Despite these precautions, there is still a chance you may be stung. If you have not been stung before, you are not at risk for a major reaction.  If you have been stung before, there is only a small chance of a major reaction.  However, if you have had a reaction to a sting with other symptoms besides irritation at the site of the sting, then risk of a major reaction is high if you are stung again.  If you have experienced a reaction in the past, you should carry a self-injectable prescription such as an EpiPen™. This device delivers a dose of a naturally occurring hormone called epinephrine to counteract the effect of insect allergies.

“Injectable epinephrine is the first line of treatment.  But it’s also important to wear an identification bracelet that indicates insect allergies,” says Dr. Smith. “Even if you have given yourself a dose of epinephrine, it is essential that you go to an ER after an insect sting, just to make sure you are okay.”

Preventative techniques

You should also consider taking immuno therapy to reduce your reaction to the venom, says Dr. Smith. This technique involves injecting small amounts of the offending venom into the patient over time, so that they gradually build up immunity to the venom. Eventually, a person with insect venom allergies can markedly decrease their sensitivity to the venom, Dr. Smith explains.

“Insect allergies can be a frightening thing,” Dr. Smith adds. “But that shouldn’t preclude you from enjoying the great outdoors during the summer.”

Thomas Smith, M.D., is an allergist who sees patients at ADC Round Rock, 1499B Old Settlers Blvd., and at the ADC Main Clinic, 12221 North MoPac.  Call 901-4002 for an appointment.