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Take the Sting Out of Gardening!


I want your gardening experience to be fun and safe from stinging insects such as yellow jackets, wasps, hornets and bees.  Gardening means being outside in the fresh air with flowers; that is where stinging insects are found as well.

Different sting reactions can predict future sting reactions!

There are 3 types of stinging insect reactions:

  1. Small localized:  these are common and “normal” with pain, redness and swelling at the site of the sting only.  Mild nausea may also occur.  It hurts but it does not predict a worse reaction with the next sting or require allergy testing or having self-injectable epinephrine.
  2.  Large localized:  these reactions are more impressive and consist of redness, swelling and itching that extends from the sting site sometimes for quite a distance.  For example, a sting on the hand that extends up the entire arm.  The risk is slightly higher for a generalized reaction but not significant to require allergy testing or self-injectable epinephrine.  The risk of developing compartment syndrome can be prevented by taking Prednisone prescribed by a physician.
  3. Generalized hives/skin reactions:  for children <16 years old, the risk of a future anaphylactic reaction to a sting is low, but for adults, the risk is higher.  Therefore, adults with generalized rash, itching or hives after a sting should be evaluated by an allergist.
  4. Anaphylaxis:  this is the most severe type of allergic reaction and if left untreated may lead to death.  Symptoms typically include the skin (hives, swelling, rash, flushing) but also include other body organ systems such as respiratory (throat tightness, cough, wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing), GI (nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain), and less commonly shock (decrease in blood pressure) leading to loss of consciousness and if severe seizures.  Even if symptoms are mild but include more than 1 organ system are a person is at increased risk for a more severe allergic reaction on the next sting.
  • Key Point: Any individual who has experienced anaphylaxis or those over 16 years old who have had generalized skin reactions are encouraged to seek evaluation by an allergist to discuss treatment strategies.
    • Obtain a prescription and learn how and when to use self-injectable epinephrine (EpiPen®, Auvi-Q®, Adrenaclick®)
    • Learn how to protect yourself from stings and treat if stung.
    • Specific Treatment:  VIT (Venom Immuno-Therapy):  this is a process of gradually increasing doses of venom injections to “desensitize” a person to the venom that triggered the allergic reaction.  Treatment is highly successful and safe in the hands of an experienced allergist.
  • How can I avoid being stung?  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!  Let me provide you with some ideas that really work.
    • Do not look or smell like a flower (do not wear bright colored clothing or wear perfume/cologne); instead wear drab colored clothes (like you are going trout fishing!)
    • Do not leave pop bottles or cans open as insects will fly into these to enjoy sweet drinks.  A sting in the mouth can be severe!
    • Do not swat at the insects.  Back away slowly.
    • Evaluate the gardening area searching for insect nests.
      • Hornets (white and yellow faced): build oval “paper” nests that hang from trees and look like “Japanese lanterns.”
      • Yellow jackets: build nests in the ground, fences, bushes, decks and they are VERY aggressive!
      • Wasps: build nests from mud or woody pulp (paper-like) and can be found along walls, eaves of houses or in burrows.
      • Honey bees:  wild bees live in hollow trees or logs.  Domesticated bees live in colonies in straw, clay or wood structures. Bees tend to be docile and sting to protect the hive and Queen.
  • What to do if you are stung?  Act quick and follow these instructions.
    • Don’t panic!
    • If the stinger is still in the skin (only honey bees leave a stinger) flick it off quickly within seconds (don’t squeeze)!
    • Wash the sting area with soap and water
    • Apply cold pack (ice) to the sting site to help with swelling
    • Take an antihistamine such as Zyrtec®, Claritin®, Allegra®, Xyzal® or Benadryl®.  It takes about 30 minutes for an antihistamine to become effective.
    • Take ibuprofen (unless your are allergic to it) to decrease pain
    • Administer self-injectable epinephrine into outer thigh if you are at high risk for anaphylaxis (see above).
    • Call 911 immediately if experiencing breathing, heart symptoms or feeling of “impending doom.”

Gardening is rewarding!  Don’t let stinging insects take the fun out of it!

At Family Allergy & Asthma Care of Montana, we want you to enjoy outdoor activities including gardening and be safe while doing them.

This information is solely for informational purposes and not intended as a substitute for consultation with a medical professional.

  1. Ethan HansenEthan Hansen09-30-2019

    It’s good to know that signs of anaphylaxis can be treated if you have epinephrine nearby. My wife is allergic to bees and we want to make sure she’s safe when we start gardening. We’ll be sure to keep your tips in mind as we find an allergy center!

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