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July 29, 2010

Wasp stings are no picnic in August

Wasps are the flying bane of many an outdoor gathering, be they black and white hornets, paper wasps or long-legged yellow jackets - all three of which are common pests in Winnipeg.

Wasps sting people running barefoot through the grass. They sting when you try to shoo them away from food and drink. They sting when you get too close to their nest. And those stings burn like your skin has been set on fire.

While most people are not allergic to wasp stings, it helps to know when and how to treat a sting at home, and when you should contact 911 for help. In Winnipeg, you can call Health Links - Info Santé at 788-8200, where a nurse is available 24 hours a day to answer questions.

When it's an emergency

Everyone reacts to being stung, usually within minutes. While the stings are painful, they usually can be treated at home. However, if the stung person has any of the following symptoms call 911 or go to the emergency department of the nearest hospital. If you are stung, do not drive yourself.

  • Severe swelling of the lips, tongue or throat.

  • Trouble breathing, and/or wheezing (whistling sounds when breathing).

  • Persistent diarrhea or vomiting.

  • Hives.

  • Persistent dizziness.

  • Loss of consciousness.

If you know you are allergic to insect stings, ask your health care provider about carrying an epinephrine inject kit, such as an EpiPen. If the stung person carries an injection kit, use it right away. Using the EpiPen does not mean you're OK. It is a medication you use to control symptoms until you get to an Emergency Department. EpiPen only lasts for a short time and the symptoms could recur. Wear a Medic Alert ID that warns of your allergy and tells what to do in case of emergency.

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) may be necessary, if the person has stopped breathing, or his or her heart has stopped beating.

You should also contact your health care provider if you have a rash that is getting worse, or your symptoms are getting worse instead of better. A small percentage of the population will develop an allergy to wasp venom, if repeatedly stung.

How to treat a wasp sting

The majority of people can be treated at home. If you are stung by a wasp, try to remain calm or you will attract more wasps. If there is a stinger in your skin, scrape it away with a fingernail. Do not squeeze the stinger, or it will release more venom.

The sting will cause a local reaction in the area you were stung, which will include pain, redness, swelling and itching, affecting an area of skin up to 10 cm across. You can treat this by:

  • Put a cold, moist cloth or ice cubes on the stung area. Don't apply the ice directly to your skin. Leave on for 20 to 30 minutes, or as needed.

  • If you are stung in the mouth or throat, suck on ice, or drink cold water slower to minimize the swelling.

  • Apply hydrocortisone cream, calamine lotion or antihistamine cream on the area.

  • Make a paste of 3 teaspoons baking soda and 1 teaspoon of water and rub on the area.

  • Consider taking an antihistamine such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) for itching.

  • Consider taking ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) for pain relief.

  • Children can be given age-specific pain killers, in the correct dosage.

How to prevent future stings

Getting stung once is bad enough. Getting stung again can be prevented. Here's how to do so:

  • Don't poke the wasp nest with a stick.

  • If you are stung, run away, as the wasps will lose interest in chasing you.

  • Avoid walking barefoot or wearing open-toe shoes when outside.

  • Do not wear perfume.

  • When eating outside, be aware that wasps are partial to sandwiches, proteins and sugary foods. Keep your food covered. Wasps like crawling inside cans of pop and beer and will rapidly sting if you drink a mouthful which includes the insect. This is particularly dangerous, as a wasp sting in the mouth can cause severe reactions almost immediately.

  • Patrol your outdoor living space for wasp nests. A blast of water from the garden hose should remove small paper wasp nests as they are forming.

Health Links - Info Santé received around 700 calls about insect stings and bites between May 1 and Sept. 1, 2009, along with 136 inquiries about bee or yellow jackets stings affecting children. From May 1 of this year onwards, Health Links - Info Santé has been contacted 300 times regarding bites and stings, along with 26 questions about stings affecting children.

For more information on how to treat wasp stings, call Health Links - Info Santé at 788-8200 in Winnipeg.

Related links

Wasps - What are they?

Health Links - Info Santé

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