Wasps and bees can put us in a bit of a panic.
But some people have more reason than most to be anxious because, for them, a sting can cause a dramatic – and potentially life threatening – allergic reaction.
It’s called anaphylaxis and it’s when your body’s immune system overreacts. It can be quite frightening. The triggers include foods such as peanuts, wasp and bee venom and even some drugs, like penicillin.
The most deadly, however, are wasp and bee stings. In the UK they caused more than 70 per cent of all deaths from anaphylaxis outside of a medical setting between 1992 and 20011.
That’s more than the fatalities caused by food allergies.
In fact, up to 3% of the people in the UK are at risk of an allergy and a small minority of those may be at risk of anaphylaxis. But they may not even know it.
Don’t risk the sting
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That’s why we’re campaigning to highlight the issue and the steps that people at risk can take to stay safe.
Perhaps you, or someone you know, has had a severe reaction to a wasp or bee sting? Or maybe you’re anxious after experiencing moderate symptoms from being stung?
If that’s the case, you can still enjoy the great outdoors – whether at work or play – thanks to a choice of treatment options. These range from sting avoidance strategies all the way to specialist treatments available at hospital based allergy clinics. Just speak to your GP to find out more.
So next time you bump into a wasp or bee – there’s no need to panic.
About bee and wasp allergy:
In the UK there are several species of stinging wasp and hornet although only one species of bee, the honey bee, commonly stings. Wasps and bees are the most likely to sting; despite their size, hornet stings are rare and bumble bees hardly ever sting.
Some people have a sensitivity that means a sting by a wasp or a bee could trigger a full allergy to the specific venom of that species. It’s the particular proteins within the venom that are to blame.
You may not have an allergic reaction the first time you’re stung by a wasp or bee but there is a small risk that subsequent stings could lead to a serious allergic reaction called anaphylaxis.
Symptoms of anaphylaxis include:
- Intense pain from the sting
- Feeling unwell, dizzy and sensing what’s been described as “an impending doom”
- Rapidly spreading rash
- Sudden drop in blood pressure
- Wheezing, tight chest
- Physical collapse
What can we do about it?
If you’re concerned you might be allergic to wasp or bee venom, there are a number of options.
Reducing the chances of wasps and bees bothering you reduces the chances of being stung. Try to avoid the things that attract them such as sugary food and drink, bright clothing and some perfumes. And if they come too close for comfort – don’t flap!
2. Auto-injector pens
For people with a known allergy, auto-injector pens are a possible solution. They can be kept on hand so that in the event of a sting, the victim can quickly inject themselves with adrenaline to stop the reaction, as well as immediately calling for an ambulance.
3. Go to your GP
Explain to your doctor why you are worried and any symptoms you may have experienced as a result of a wasp or bee sting. They will be able to offer advice and, if appropriate, refer you to an allergy clinic for tests and specialist treatments.
4. Specialist treatments
The NHS also offer other long-term treatment options that are available from specialist allergy clinics. Speak to your GP to find out more.
What are the treatment options?
Tackling the cause: Specialist treatments
First, you speak to your GP. If they think that you have had an anaphylactic reaction or are at risk of having one they will refer you to an allergy clinic.
Should you have experienced a systemic allergic reaction the allergy clinic may perform a skin-prick test or a blood test to discover what kind of venom you are allergic to: wasp, bee or both? Each wasp species has its own venom so it’s important to find out which of those it is, or whether it’s bee venom that is the problem. It is possible to be allergic to both, though most people only react to one.
If you are assessed as suitable for specialist treatments, you will start with a tiny injection of the right purified venom. Regular increases in dose are given until your body has become immune to its effect. The injections are by specialist medical professionals at one of the dedicated units around the UK.
It can take three to five years to complete a course so you will need to be patient!
Tackling the symptoms: emergency response
There are alternative treatments which, rather than treat the cause of anaphylactic shock, help to tackle the symptoms instead.
One of best known examples is the adrenaline auto-injector pen (AAI). Adrenaline is injected into the thigh as the first line treatment of symptoms of an anaphylactic reaction, whilst awaiting medical assistance from 999 ambulance paramedics. Adrenaline maintains blood pressure and oxygen levels, while easing inflammation and other problems.
As well as an AAI, emergency sting kits might also contain:
- antihistamines: high dose anti-allergy pills
- corticosteroid: anti-inflammatory steroids
- bronchodilator: to relax your airways
Emergency kits are available for a range of people who have had:
- a history of severe reactions with respiratory difficulty and/or hypotension
- less severe reactions that have nevertheless been wide-ranging
- asthma or mild food reactions that make them high risk
However, to be effective an emergency kit has to be used quickly, correctly and safely. The treatment isn’t guaranteed, so an ambulance must always be called after using an adrenaline auto-injector pen.
How much do you know?
How much do you know about wasps, bees and venom allergies?
Check out our fact-file to test your knowledge.
- Only female wasps and bees sting
- Despite their reputation, hornets are only aggressive near their nest
- There is just one species of honey bee in the UK – but several species of wasps
- Bumble bees rarely sting
- More people are allergic to wasps than bees1
- In the UK, venom anaphylaxis is the second most frequent cause of anaphylaxis outside medical settings1
- 52% of people who have a bad reaction to a wasp or bee sting develop a serious allergy1
- 71% of anaphylaxis deaths in the UK between 1992 and 2001 were from wasp and bee stings1
“I thought I was going to die”, says wasp sting allergy victim - Marian's story
Remembering the allergic reaction that spread through her body, 61-year-old Marian Kearney recalls: “I was terrified like I have never been before. I thought I was going to die.”
Marian, a former teacher, is one of the estimated 1 per cent of adults in the UK who are allergic to wasp and bee venom. But when she was stung while working in the garden of her home in Kendal, Cumbria, in late September 2014, she initially thought little of it. She had no idea she was allergic.
“It was a sunny late September afternoon when my life suddenly changed,” she explained. “I was stung but I still had a lot of gardening to do, so within a minute or two when I quickly experienced dramatic changes to my body.
“I ran into the house, swallowed an antihistamine tablet and placed a wet flannel on the site of the sting. I started by feeling woozy, as if I was going to faint, and then was aware of my body swelling. I quickly stumbled back into the house where I looked up my symptoms online to learn I needed to dial 999.”
Ominously she was instructed by the operator to open the front door and lie down ready for the ambulance. The situation was worsening fast: her throat swelled up, constraining her breathing, and a red rash covered her body which also swelled, including her face where her eyes were almost squeezed shut.
Everything, including the terrifying sense of doom that began to wash over Marian as she lay on the floor, was signaling a classic case of wasp venom anaphylaxis – the potentially fatal overreaction by the body to the sting.
Marian was rescued by the arrival of the paramedics who swiftly spotted the medical signs and injected her with adrenaline and steroids to fight the reaction and save her life.
She was taken to hospital where her condition was judged serious enough to keep her in overnight for observation. She was only allowed home at lunchtime – nearly 24 hours after the wasp stung her in the garden.
The episode was over but Marian is still dealing with the ongoing effects of her allergy. It was likely to have been primed 12 years ago by the last sting she suffered; setting up her body to react violently to the particular proteins contained in the venom.
One of the immediate consequences was to put a cloud over Marian’s planned trip to Nigeria to volunteer with a charity for three months. Would she be able to go knowing that a simple sting could put her in another life-threatening situation without the NHS to call on?
She said: “Happily following a discussion with the charity’s medical officer, permission was granted providing that those colleagues I was working with were informed of my condition and taught how to use an adrenaline auto-injector pen.”
The auto-injector pen, an emergency injector containing adrenaline to fight the effects of anaphylaxis, is now a constant companion to Marian, who has taught her friends and family how to use it.
She explained: “I carry two auto-injector pens with me at all times: winter included, when I am not even expecting wasps to be around – no excuses, ever. I do find this a bit of a bind, meaning that whatever I do, I need to carry a bag, even when just popping to see a friend, or taking a walk.”
Other consequences Marian describes include travel insurance for worldwide cover rocketing up from £56 a year to quotes as high as £892.
“This healthy woman was described by the insurers as having a life threatening condition,” she said. “It’s true, I do have – but seeing it spelt out like that felt pretty scary.”
Marian, who joined the Anaphylaxis Campaign supporting people with severe allergies like hers, admits: “For the first few months after the sting I worried all the time about being stung. But time has settled those fears and I am now confident that if it ever happens my auto-injector pens and the NHS will save me.
“It definitely has been something that’s changed my life. I think about it at all times. But I am determined not to let it worry me. But if ever I get stung again, I ring 999 and need to say only one word: anaphylaxis.”
To raise awareness of venom anaphylaxis, ALK – a pharmaceutical company which supplies some of the products used in the treatment of venom allergy – has launched the Bee Resistant campaign.
Sean Connor, (General Manager, ALK), said: “Venom anaphylaxis is a rare but very serious and potentially life threatening condition that can affect anyone, regardless of age. Anyone experiencing a severe allergic reaction should not delay calling 999, and anyone who has experienced a severe reaction in the past should consult their GP for advice.”
Despite calls for him to retire, David was not deterred by his experience of anaphylaxis – David’s story
‘I was stung in the head and collapsed before passing out completely’: despite calls for him to retire, beekeeper David was not deterred by his experience of anaphylaxis
For most beekeepers, the thought of getting a serious allergic reaction to a bee sting is far from the focus of their attention. Experienced beekeepers will tell you that honey bees are generally docile and seldom sting unless provoked. But for keen beekeeper, David Parker, a spate of bee stings left his wife dialing 999 after his second anaphylactic reaction.
“I started beekeeping in the summer of 2013. All was going well and I had set up two honey bee colonies in my garden,” said David, who runs a financial consultancy service and lives in Woking, Surrey with his wife.
“I had been stung many times before, as any beekeeper does, with no or little reaction. The first time I had a bad reaction I was just in my garden, not even tending to my bees when I got stung in the head and chest in quick succession. I had a bad reaction, passed out, but just carried on as I was by myself and did not realise what had just happened.”
“The second time the same thing happened and I was stung twice; I started to feel incredibly dizzy and faint, before I collapsed and passed out completely. I’d had an anaphylactic shock and had been unconscious for around 10 minutes. My wife found me and called the emergency services, by the time I had woken up the ambulance had arrived. After about fifteen minutes my pulse was back to normal so thankfully there was no need for me to go to hospital.”
“That’s it, give up beekeeping”, said David’s wife once the ambulance had left. Despite calls for him to retire, David was determined not to let the experience of anaphylaxis ruin his passion for beekeeping and started investigating treatment options.
“I had done a lot of research and found that the Royal Surrey County Hospital provided a desensitization course available on the NHS. I went to my GP, armed with this information, but they said they’d never heard of it before – I had to show them the website before they believed me!”
Upto 3% of the UK population is at risk of a sting that can provoke an allergic reaction and a small minority of these people will go on to develop the potentially fatal allergic symptoms of anaphylaxis¹, but like David, most are unaware they are at risk.
“What’s concerning is that even my local GP, in a large practice was unaware that treatment for people like me is a possibility and is so effective it is even NICE approved.
“I started my course in September 2014 and am over half way through. They build you up with incremental doses up to 12 weeks then move to monthly injections over the course of 36 months.
“I have been lucky enough to make friends with a fellow bee keeper whilst undergoing the treatment – we do lunch first then injections!
“The treatment course is the easy part – the next challenge is of course convincing the wife that I will be safe! I have managed to find a bee suit specially designed for people like me, who need to avoid getting stung, and always carry an Epipen in my pocket in case of emergencies. My GP has been good and understands that I need four Epipen’s – one for each car, one for the house and one for my bee suit.
“The good news is that, although I haven’t yet completed it, the course does seem to be working, I have had a few stings with no real effect. In fact with the injections, after two hours you could not even tell I had been stung.
“As the course has proven so successful already I am back keeping bees, and with the purchase of a very good bee suit (I have found one called a BeePro specifically designed for people who are bee sting sensitive) I am back up to 10 or so colonies. I am thoroughly looking forward to this season and building up again to enjoy beekeeping.”
The sting that sent Susan’s bike ride in a life-threatening direction – Susan’s Story
The New Forest is the perfect setting for keen cyclists, and enjoying the beautiful surroundings on a summer evening bike ride can be bliss. However, for Susan Massarweh (57), what started out as a leisurely bike ride could have ended in tragedy.
Susan had been stung many times before and experienced a severe localised reaction years earlier but was unaware that she was at risk from venom anaphylaxis. These stings are likely to have set in motion the severe reaction that triggered Susan’s life threatening venom anaphylaxis years later.
Five years ago, Susan set off for a relaxing evening bike ride in the New Forest, but after cycling for less than a couple of miles she felt something hit her cheek: “I initially thought I had been hit in the face by a falling twig” Susan explained. “However after I started to experience increasing amounts of pain, I stopped to ask a passer-by if there was any sign of injury. They told me they couldn’t see anything, but that my cheek was extremely red. By that point my lips had begun to feel itchy and I felt something wasn’t right, so I turned back and began to cycle home.”
Susan’s condition quickly deteriorated: “I began to feel increasingly itchy over my body and that’s when the panic set in. I stopped twice to call my son to ask if he could come home to meet me, and I even considered asking at a local shop for help as the pain was becoming increasingly intense. The itchiness was rapidly spreading to my hands and chest and I felt very hot. As I got closer to home my symptoms worsened – I couldn’t breathe normally, my throat was tight and I felt agitated and extremely anxious.”
“Once home, I went straight to my neighbour’s house, as my son wasn’t home yet and I didn’t want to be alone. After I described my symptoms my neighbour immediately rang the hospital and an ambulance was then called.”
By the time the ambulance arrived Susan was falling in and out of consciousness – and paramedics quickly administered a lifesaving shot of adrenaline before taking Susan to hospital.
Upon her release from hospital the next day, Susan was advised to see her GP, where she was prescribed an auto-injector adrenaline that she now needs to carry at all times.
“Since my traumatic experience, I have made several changes to my life; small things like removing my lavender bushes from my front garden, to educating my friends on my condition and explaining how to administer my treatment in an emergency. Despite the emotional trauma and my ongoing wariness of wasps and bees I am determined to carry on as normal, enjoying lots of walks and gardening and am looking into long term treatment options.”
Prof.S.Arshad, Professor of Allergy and Clinical Immunology at the University of Southampton said “Anyone that spends lots of time outside as part of their profession or hobby should be aware of the risks of venom anaphylaxis. It’s a rare but very serious and potentially life threatening condition that can affect anybody. If you experience a severe allergic reaction after being stung, you should call 999 immediately, and anyone who has experienced a severe reaction previously should discuss this with their GP.”
Bee in the know about Anaphylaxis
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