Summer is best spent outdoors enjoying picnics, hammocks and sports. Unfortunately, the sting of an unwanted guest can spoil the fun.
“In the Northwest, yellow jackets are most common,” said Dr. Paul Williams of Northwest Asthma &Allergy Center. “There are five common culprits: honeybees, wasps, yellow jackets and two kinds of hornets, the white- and yellow-faced.”
The end of summer, August and September, Williams said, are higher-risk months. Yellow jackets are particularly prolific as they become hungrier and more aggressive.
Take the sting out a potential encounter by learning how to avoid it or identify and treat a reaction.
Do not make yourself attractive by dressing or smelling like a flower.
“Avoid wearing perfume, colognes or even strongly scented deodorant,” advised Dr. Mark La Shell, allergy and immunology specialist at Group Health Everett Medical Center. “It’s also best to avoid brightly colored clothing that reminds them of flowers.”
Walking barefoot through the grass is risky and long pants are advised when navigating gardens and heavily planted areas.
“Eating and drinking really attracts yellow jackets and hornets in an outdoor setting,” Williams said. “A picnic with uncovered food will entice them. Also, put beverages in a clear glass rather than drinking from a can. You don’t want to end up swallowing one of them.”
The severity of an individual’s reaction to a sting varies and can be unpredictable.
“There is no good data that supports sting reactions being hereditary. Either you get it or you don’t. Severe reactions really only occur 3 to 5 percent of the time,” La Shell said.
A mild reaction typically involves swelling, redness, tenderness and itching around the sting site. Symptoms usually abate within a few days. Moderate reactions cause similar but exacerbated symptoms and take longer to subside.
“I usually tell patients that swelling larger than the palm of your hand might mean an increased risk of a more severe reaction the next time you’re stung,” La Shell said.
Honeybees often leave the stinger in their target. If it remains, flick it away with a fingernail. The stinger contains the venom sac, and pinching or pulling can push remaining venom into the wound.
At-home remedies include applying cold compresses, topical hydrocortisone ointments and oral antihistamines. If a fever develops, see a doctor immediately as it may indicate an infection.
“The good news is that over 90 percent of people who have a large, local reaction will never experience more than that if stung again,” Williams said.
Severe allergic reactions — anaphylaxis — occur within minutes and can be life-threatening. Acute itching can be accompanied by difficulty in breathing, dizziness, nausea and vomiting, weak pulse and swelling of the throat and tongue.
“Adults have slightly more risk of problems than children,” Williams said. “Those over 40 years have a higher rate of severe reactions. We don’t know exactly why.”
Call 911 immediately in case of a severe reaction. Those with a previous history are advised to carry an epinephrine (epi) pen prescribed by a doctor. Use it immediately after being stung.
“The potential risks of unnecessarily using an EpiPen — a mildly elevated heart rate — are low compared to not using it and having a full-blown reaction,” says Williams.
Seek medical help even if an EpiPen results in significant improvement and do not drive to the hospital. According to Williams, approximately 10 percent to 20 percent of patients experience a relapse in symptoms after the pen’s effects subside.
People with a history of anaphylactic reactions can reduce their future risk to only 2 percent to 3 percent with immunotherapy shots.
“It can be a real lifesaver for people. If you’ve had a severe reaction, you don’t need to live in fear every summer and fall,” La Shell said.