Bee venom is a common cause of allergic reactions. Many types of insects can cause allergies, but bees are among the most common.
Bees are the world’s leading cause of death by venomous animals. Bees kill more people worldwide than spiders, snakes, and scorpions (de Roodt 2005). Insect stings cause at least 50 deaths annually in the United States alone (Golden 2003). Learning the symptoms of bee sting allergies is important because a severe allergic reaction requires immediate treatment. The treatment of bee sting allergies and bee sting poisoning is different, so it is necessary to distinguish between the two.
Ordinary Symptoms of Bee Stings
Bee stings involve the injection of toxic venom and cause instant symptoms. The first symptom is a sudden burning pain at the site of the sting. This is followed by a red welt with a small white spot at the center and mild swelling at the sting site. Symptoms usually ease within a few hours, for single stings when there is no allergy (Mayo Clinic 2008).
Bee sting poisoning is caused by massive doses of bee venom resulting from multiple stings. Even in the absence of an allergy, bee sting poisoning can cause death.
Symptoms of Bee Sting Allergies
Normally, a single bee sting causes nothing more than minor discomfort. When the victim is allergic to bee venom, however, a range of additional symptoms can occur. Allergic reactions to bees fall into two categories: localized reactions and systemic reactions.
A localized allergic reaction causes severe swelling around the area of the bite. The swollen area reaches up to 10 inches in diameter and develops over 24 to 48 hours, resolving within 2 to 7 days (Golden 2003).
Systemic reactions involve the whole body and have several possible symptoms. Some patients experience only generalized cutaneous symtpoms, such as hives all over the body; this is more common in children than in adults. Adults are more likely to experience anaphylaxis, which involves both a skin reaction of some type and one or more life-threatening symptoms that can include airway constriction from swelling, bronchoconstriction (asthma-like attack), loss of blood pressure, and shock (Golden 2003). The patient may also experience dizziness and/or a feeling of impending doom. Anaphylaxis requires immediate emergency treatment.
Bee Sting Poisoning vs. Bee Sting Allergies
There are several ways to differentiate between allergies and poisoning for a bee sting victim in serious distress. Bee sting poisoning results from massive attacks; the patient will have many stings. With a bee sting allergy, severe symptoms can occur from a single sting.
The symptoms of bee sting poisoning include the breakdown of blood cells (hemolysis), muscle tissue breakdown (rhabdomyolysis), kidney failure, and other organ failure (de Roodt et al. 2005). These symptoms can result in death for a victim who received many stings. The best treatment is antivenom, an antidote specific to bee venom.
The symptoms of bee sting allergies have a faster onset. In anaphylaxis, the life-threatening type of allergic reaction, generalized skin symptoms, such as hives or flushing, are always present, separate from the normal swelling at the site of the sting. Anaphylaxis can be treated immediately with an epinephrine injection.
- de Roodt, A. R.; O.D. Salomón, T. A. Orduna, L. E. Robles Ortiz, J. F. Paniagua Solís, A. Alagón Cano, 2005. “Poisoning by bee sting.” Gaceta médica de México (Medical Gazette of Mexico) 141(3):215-22.
- Golden, D. B. K., 2003. “Stinging Insect Allergy.” Am Fam Phys 64(12):2541-6.
- Mayo Clinic staff, 2008. “Bee stings.” MayoClinic.com.