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Wasp Stings


Why They Sting

Stinging insects such as bees, wasps, yellow jackets and hornets use their stings to subdue prey (primarily insects and spiders) and to defend themselves or their colony. While various species display different degrees of aggressiveness, the same basic reasons for attacking and stinging are the instinctive desire to feed themselves or their colony members and to protect and defend their colony.

Appearance and Nest Location

Paper Wasps

There are many different species of paper wasps, but the most commonly seen are about 5/8 to 3/4 inch in length and are brown, reddish with yellow or red markings. Some paper wasps look similar to yellow jackets. Paper wasps have very long legs and, even when in flight, their legs will extend below their body. Paper wasp nests are usually made of a paper-like material with a circular comb of cells that open toward the bottom of the nest. Their nests are often shaped like an umbrella and attached to whatever supports the nest by a thin diameter pedestal. Paper wasp nests are commonly found under building overhangs and decks, behind shutters and inside gas grills, children’s play sets, mailboxes, light fixtures and abandoned vehicles. Most paper wasps are not as aggressive as yellow jackets and bald-faced hornets, but will readily sting to protect their nest.

Solitary Wasps

Solitary wasps vary a great deal in appearance, and they usually build their nests underground. As their name suggests, only one female wasp cares for the nest. Since these wasps are not socialized like honey bees, yellow jackets and hornets, they are not aggressive and rarely sting. One of the more striking solitary wasps is the cicada killer wasp that looks like a hornet on steroids, but is relatively docile unless handled or accidentally stepped on.

Categories of Reactions and Symptoms

Typical symptoms and reactions to stings by yellow jackets, hornets and wasps do not differ to a large extent except when a victim is stung multiple times by many individual insects and the victim is highly allergic to the insect’s venom. Generally, stings produce the following reactions and symptoms:

Localized reactions. These are the most common types of reaction to a bee or wasp sting. Symptoms include pain, swelling, warmth, redness at the site of the sting and itching. Symptoms show up almost immediately after stings and may last several hours. Large local reactions may result in excessive swelling that may last as long as a week as well as feelings of nausea and fatigue.

These symptoms do not cause major medical problems and are usually limited to or are very near the sting site.

Secondary bacterial infections. This type of skin infection develops if the sting site is frequently scratched and bacteria are given a suitable condition in which to develop. Failure to adequately clean, disinfect and medicate sting sites enable infections to occur.

Systemic (affecting the whole body) allergic reactions. These reactions occur in people or pets that have produced a type of antibody, known as immunoglobulin E, against the same insect venom from a previous sting. Systemic allergic reactions are critical medical issues, but occur in a very small percentage of stings. Symptoms of systemic allergic reactions include swollen red bumps on the skin, flushing of the skin and difficulty breathing due to swelling of the pharynx epiglottis and narrowing of the bronchial passages. The reactions may vary in severity from mild skin to life-threatening. Anaphylaxis, the most severe immunologic reactions, occur more commonly in males and people less than 20 years of age. In severe reactions, hypotension (low blood pressure, circulatory disturbances, and breathing difficulty) can progress to fatal cardiorespiratory arrest. Most people who develop anaphylactic reactions have experienced previous stings with few problems, but once an individual has experienced an anaphylactic reaction, the risk of having a recurrent episode is above 50 percent.

Toxic reactions result directly from wasp or bee venom rather than the immune system's response. These reactions occur when an unusual amount of venom is introduced to the body. Individuals usually experience toxic reactions after being stung multiple times.

Symptoms can include fever, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, fainting and convulsions. Swollen red bumps, rash and other skin-related symptoms are less common in toxic reactions than in systemic allergic reactions. Because stinging insect venom is a strong stimulant that causes the immune response, people who have experienced toxic reactions may produce antibodies to the venom and be at risk for future systemic anaphylactic reactions to stings.

Delayed reactions occur, but are uncommon and may show up days to weeks after the sting. These reactions constitute less than 1 percent of all reactions to insect stings. Delayed reaction symptoms can vary a great deal and may include inflammation of the brain (encephalitis), the nerves (neuritis), blood vessels and kidneys as well as blood clotting disturbances.


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