Wasp Stings – A Significant Medical Risk
By George Giltner, Adv. Master Gardener
The social wasps, paper wasps, yellow jackets, hornets, red wasps, etc., in the U.S. account for more fatalities than any other venomous animal (1). Approximately 0.5 to 4.0% is prone to “immediate hypersensitivity reactions” including life-threatening anaphylaxis. Most deaths occur within a few minutes to hours from the initial sting. Constricting of airways and throat swelling cause respiratory failure or cardiovascular collapse occurs due to a rapid drop in blood pressure (2). Therefore these stings can be quite serious.
The hot days of summer bring on numerous encounters with wasps, usually from 10 am until 6 pm. Recently, I was venturing up a ladder to the second story of my barn while a flurry of paper wasps suddenly zipped around. Needless to say, the climb became a rapid descent, then a run. One nest was on the second ladder step, and the other was at the 8-foot level. I was lucky to avoid a sting as the pheromones signal other wasps that they should also participate. Wasps are not like bees with a barbed stinger that can only be used once. Wasps have a smooth stinger that can be injected multiple times.
Wasp’s sting venom is a complex mixture of multiple compounds including proteins, peptides, enzymes and other molecules. However we can examine some of the major components to understand the medical effect of a sting (3):
- Acetylcholine – increases stimulation of pain nerves. Very high in hornet stings.
- Noradrenaline – causes constriction of blood vessels resulting in high blood pressure.
- Histamine – causes pain and itching. Chemical released during an allergic response.
- Wasp kinin – large portion of wasp venom, but it has not been understood completely.
- Phospholipase A – destroys cells and is a strong allergen.
- Phospholipase B – like A, but also used to paralyze prey.
- Hyaluronidase – breaks down cell walls and allows penetration of venom into tissue.
- Serotonin – causes irritation and pain
- Alarm pheromones – causes same species to attack nearby threats
The best treatment of a sting is the application of antihistamine creams, which reduces further inflammation (3). Benadryl (diphenhydramine) has proven to aid itching and rash (1). Ice soothes pain issues and reduces swelling. Wash the sting site. Continue to observe and be prepared to treat the site for bacterial infections for days afterward.
Most home remedies do not work. However it is correct that bee venom has acidic components, and wasp stings have alkaline components, but the venom quickly penetrates tissue. Therefore adding a topical treatment of alkaline (like baking soda) or acidic (like vinegar) will not be helpful. A “ chaw of tobacco” and other folk cures are also not effective. If someone is stung, it is wise to move the person into a cool environment with observers. If any allergic symptoms arise, or if the person is known to have previous allergic responses to stings, get immediate medical attention (1).