Stopping the Sting

Bees, wasps, scorpions and caterpillars are the most common stinging varmints in east Texas. Bees can sting only once. Their barbed stinger tears out and remains in the skin. The bee flies away, fatally injured. Wasps, scorpions and fire ants have a smoother stinger that they don’t lose during an attack. It’s located at the end of their abdomen or tail and they can sting multiple times. Even though it’s common to hear someone say they have been bitten by a fire ant they’ve really been stung, not bitten.

Some people are extremely hypersensitive to stings. For those folks the most dangerous reaction is anaphylactic shock. Their blood pressure may suddenly drop causing dizziness, a “head rush”, fainting and loss of consciousness. Difficulty in breathing may also occur and death can follow in less than an hour. It a sting victim experiences any of these symptoms, get them to an emergency medical facility immediately. If you know you are hyperallergic to stings talk with your physician about carrying oral and/or injectable medications to combat symptoms. Prescription auto-injectors are available that contain ephedrine and can be life-saving for extremely sensitive people.

To treat a bee sting, first remove the stinger. It’s usually easy to see sticking out of the skin and may have a pulsing venom sac still attached. Or, it may look like a tiny sliver. A scraping motion with a credit card or knife blade will usually flick it out. Then treat it as you would a wasp or scorpion sting.

Wasps, scorpions and ants don’t leave a stinger so you can begin immediately to treat the symptoms. Cool packs or ice packs will ease the pain. Antihistamines such as Benadryl (diphenhydramine) or chlorpheniramine may be taken orally to alleviate swelling, itching and other symptoms. Hydrocortisone cream may also be helpful. A paste of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) and water applied to the sting site may help a little. But that’s more likely only because it’s cool and moist and I can’t find any evidence that applying ammonia to a sting is really effective.

I have had great success using a suction device called a Sawyer Extractor immediately after a bee or wasp sting and ant attacks. The burning, stinging and pain were alleviated almost immediately and little or no swelling took place.

There are several kinds of stinging caterpillars in East Texas but the worst is the asp or puss caterpillar which comes in various colors. An asp sting causes extreme pain for several hours. A good rule is to avoid touching caterpillars that are spiny or extremely fuzzy. The venom of stinging caterpillars is injected through hollow spines or hairs when the animal is pressed against the skin. Some victims say they initially felt a cold or numb sensation followed by severe pain. In my case, the pain from the asp sting radiated from my wrist into my armpit causing lymph node swelling and pain there too.

If you are stung by a caterpillar, apply duct tape to the site and pull it off. Facial peels may also be applied, allowed to harden and then pulled off to remove the offending hairs and spines. Antihistamines may help, but over the counter pain medications may not give much relief. Apply cold compresses or ice packs.

Fire ant stings cause small red raised bumps with a serum filled center. Burning pain generally develops immediately and is why the critters are called fire ants. The stings are generally not dangerous unless a victim is extremely allergic or due to physical limitation they cannot move away from the ant nest. Over a few days, the pustule ruptures and healing takes place. Cooling pads or ice packs, hydrocortisone cream and antihistamines may help minimize pain and itching which can continue for a week or more.

With the exception of those unfortunate enough to be very sensitive, stings are generally just a painful inconvenience and a reminder of a saying someone once told me. “Almost everything in Texas has thorns, stickers, stingers, or fangs.” But, we’re tough. We just “cowboy up” and live with ‘em.

Dr. Risk is a professor emeritus in the College of Forestry and Agriculture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Content © Paul H. Risk, Ph.D. All rights reserved, except where otherwise noted. Click to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.