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April 11, 2016 Comments (0) Health & Safety

How To Treat Bee And Wasp Stings

A few years back I was hiking in a small group along the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island, Canada. It was July: warm, dry, and sunny. We entered an opening in the forest, a small field with wild flowers baked in hot summer sun. All of a sudden I felt a sharp sting on my leg, followed by another, and another, and another – six in total! I looked down and saw several wasps circling a small hole in the ground. It was their nest – I stepped in it while hiking. I yelled to the others and the group took off, the attack was over, but the damage was done.

Prevent an attack

No matter how strong the temptation, avoid ‘swatting’ when there is a bee or wasp circling around you. If it has not attacked you yet, chances are it’s only ‘checking you out’ and will fly away on its own. A swat can cause it to turn defensive, resulting in an attack. And think about it, has swatting ever actually worked?

Fortunately for me, I belong to the large (approximately 80-90%) group of people that do not exhibit severe reactions to bee and wasp stings. Even though I was stung six times in the span of just seconds, all that I experienced was localized swelling around the sting marks, redness, and of course, a sharp pain during the actual attack. That pain later subdued into a general state of discomfort (slight itching and light pain), which lasted for about two days. It was more an irritation than a problem, but that is not always the case!

A small opening in the forest, baked in summer sun, great for pollen picking - if you're a bee! © TheHikingChild, 2016

A small opening in the forest, baked in summer sun. It is a great place for picking nectar – if you’re a bee! Image © TheHikingChild, 2015

Other people, the remaining 10-20% of the population, can experience much more severe symptoms. The sting mark may become sharply inflamed, the pain more unbearable and longer lasting, and some can even encounter symptoms of a toxic reaction such as headaches, vomiting, considerable swelling, diarrhea, and/or a strong fever.

Children, because of their small size, generally fall into the higher risk category even if they are not considered allergic to stings. It is simply a matter of scale: a child is half the size of an adult or less, yet the amount of poison injected during an insect sting is the same in both instances. So for a child, especially a small child, even one sting can be a serious matter, and even more so if the sting took place in a sensitive area, such as the throat.

Moreover, there are children that have never experienced a bee or wasp sting; and the majority of children have not been tested for allergic reactions to stings, either. How can the parents predict what will happen? This is not a problem when you are close to medical assistance. But what about in the forest, a few hours from civilization? It’s easy to see how the bee or wasp sting can turn serious very quickly, and a case of multiple stings can become a truly threatening situation to children. You should ALWAYS address bee or wasp stings with utmost caution, no matter where on the body the sting took place. 

So with all of this fear mongering behind us, what can you do to protect your family?


Protect your kids from bee and wasp stings

First and foremost, the saying goes like this:

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!

Preventing bee and wasp stings is always better than having to deal with them… right?

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Wasps are scavengers and therefore attracted to human food, especially if it’s on your child’s face. Some say that wasps even like McNuggets!

Image © Quartzia, Pixabay

First of all, keep your kids clean. We’re referring specifically to food around the mouth after eating. Kids have a tendency to keep more food on their face than in the stomach. This left-over food is very attractive to scavenging wasps (more so than bees, which prefer flowers). Always clean your child’s face and hands after eating with water or a moistened scent-free facial wipe. Change their shirt as well if it’s sticky.

And speaking of flowers: bees like nectar, which is found on flowers – in fact, they are instinctively attracted to flowers. So, don’t look or smell like a flower and bees will be less attracted to you.

It may seem silly at first, but:

  • Light monotone colors are better than colourful outfits that look like…
  • Look out for areas that attract bees and wasps and be especially cautious when traversing them – remember the opening in the forest, a small field baked in summer sun? Do you remember what was growing there?
  • Avoid strong scents, especially perfumes. They smell sweet and juicy, sort of like…

If you’ve answered ‘flowers’ in any of the points above, you win! 

Pay attention to the scents that people wear while hiking and you will notice that the above points are not so obvious to everyone. Three quarters of the hikers you will encounter smell either like citrus fruits (shampoos and conditioners), coconuts (sunscreens), calendula (creams), or Chanel (perfumes). Unfortunately, most consumer products – even those developed for the outdoors – contain very strong fragrances, which is great when going for a night on the town, but idiotic when scouting the wilderness. Strong scents not only attract insects but they also trigger an aggressive reaction in them. When going hiking with your kids, go fragrance free!

What a beautiful place for some bee watching on a warm summer day. Lake Tekapo, New Zealand. Image © Nhelia, Pixabay


How to treat a child that got stung by a wasp or a bee?

Of course, no matter how careful you are there is still a chance that you – or more importantly your kids – will get stung by a wasp or a bee. What should you do then?

First of all, if you know that your child (or other member of your group) is allergic to bee or wasp stings, you better be prepared. You should consult your doctor BEFORE the trip and develop a ‘plan of action’. Have with you the appropriate gear if necessary. This may include antihistamines, epinephrine autoinjectors (EpiPen®), or other medicines that your doctor recommends.

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Cool the sting area as soon as possible, however possible. Image © Unsplash, Pixabay

But again, not every parent knows whether her or his child is allergic to bee or wasp stings, in fact, most do not! As such, the following is a good course of action to take in the event of a sting:

  • Right after the sting, make sure that you are in a safe spot away from other attacking insects. Wasps and bees protect their territory, so you may need to relocate a safe distance from the attack area (to put it lightly, ‘dash’ away from the area where you were attacked, ‘dash’ as fast as you can).
  • Once safe, take a look at the sting mark and see if the stinger is still there. If so, you need to remove it. A good method is to use forceps, which should be a part of your first aid kit and Swiss Army Knife, which we talk about in our article The Best Knife For Hiking And Camping. But an even better method of removing the stinger is to use a sting extractor pump. One example is this Sawyer Products B4 Extractor. Such an extractor will remove the stinger and as much venom from the sting area, as possible. Remove the stinger with care and verify that it is extracted completely. Some people are known to ‘suck’ on the sting mark to draw out the venom, but the method is practically ineffective. The extractor is a much better alternative.
  • If you are carrying anything cold (like a bottle of cold water) apply it to the sting area. Maybe there is a stream nearby where you can immerse the sting area in cold water? Do this as soon as possible for 5 – 10 minutes. It will lessen the swelling.
  • Apply anti-itch cream or antihistamine – always a trusted part of your first aid kit, right? There are several decent products to choose from, 3rd Rock Itch Block is but one example – a great product for any itch related discomfort including insect bites (you can transfer it to a small lip balm container for hiking).
  • A fever medication should also be carried with you at all times, which we refer to in our article First Aid Kit For Hiking With Children.
  • Continue monitoring the sting area as time passes. In adult cases severe reactions can occur even several hours after the actual sting. In children, if a severe reaction is to occur it should begin appearing sooner than in the case of an adult. Monitor your child carefully and consider your ‘way out’ if the need arises.
  • Be cautious. If your child is showing any signs of ‘unnatural’ reaction to the bee or wasp sting, safety-first! Consider cutting your trip short. It is not worth having a medical emergency for the sake of the ‘accomplishment’. In the event of multiple stings to your child, or a sting in a sensitive area like the throat, you should immediately take the shortest route to safety. In such instances consider seeking medical assistance even if there is no immediate sign of a strong reaction. Swelling of the throat, for example, can restrict the child’s airway and turn into a very serious problem. You do not want to be in the woods if that was to happen!

Remember, your child is small. A bee or wasp sting will have a significant impact on their little body, and a case of multiple stings can even turn life threatening for a little person. A medical emergency while you are isolated on the trail is the WORST CASE SCENARIO. Use your common sense and carry a proper first aid kit. Follow the scout’s motto – ‘be prepared’ – and a bee sting will be just another adventure.

Safe and happy trails.

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