The recent spate of bee attacks in several parts of the country, which has killed at least two young school children and a factory worker, have prompted distress calls to an allergy helpline by large numbers of people who found themselves at the receiving (sharp) end of honeybees.
Mariska Fouche, Public Affairs Manager of Pharma Dynamics, says the company’s helpline has fielded dozens of calls in recent weeks as members of the public enquired about how to treat and identify allergic symptoms caused by bee stings.
“The last days of summer can often be the hairiest, as the end of the warm weather sees more bees and wasps out and about to collect nectar to feed their young before the cooler temperatures sets in,” says Fouche.
She says that there is a range of precautions people can take to ensure they do not fall foul of bees and wasps.
“People should not harbour a phobia of bees and wasps, but it is important to take care not to be stung as it could lead to a person going into anaphylactic shock.
“During the summer we cook and eat outdoors and generally spend more time in the garden, which is their territory. Think about where you plant flowers. If you keep them near doors and windows, bees and wasps are more likely to come into your house.
“Try not to eat sugary foods and drinks outside. If you do drink outside, the best thing to do is use a bottle and keep the lid on it to stop any bees or wasps from getting inside, which could result in a nasty sting in your mouth.”
Fouche also advises against wearing strong perfumes or brightly-coloured clothing, which could lead them to confuse humans for flowers.
If a bee or wasp does approach, Fouche warns against lashing out and trying to swat the insects.
“Unlike a bee, a wasp can sting over and over without dying, so if it should land on you rather use a piece of paper or a leaf to gently sweep it away,” she says.
Identifying an allergic reaction
Dr Mike Levin, Allergy Advisor to Pharma Dynamics, offers the following advice on identifying and treating bee sting allergies:
“If stung by a bee or wasp, a person can get a localised reaction in the form of swelling, heat or itching of the skin around the bite area. If you can see the stinger, remove it as quickly as possible to lessen exposure to the venom. Put an ice pack on the affected area for 15 minutes every few hours or so, which will help to reduce swelling. Oral antihistamines and analgesics might also help to reduce pain or itching associated with skin reactions.
“However, in case of a serious systemic allergic reaction, which means the venom causes a reaction throughout a person’s body and not just around the bite itself, the person may break out in hives, experience wheezing, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, faintness and swelling of the face, lips or tongue. If a person has any of these symptoms, it is important to get medical help immediately.”
If you know that you or your child is severely allergic to bee stings, Dr Levin recommends that you wear a medic alert tag at all times and see your doctor for a prescription for an emergency kit with an adrenaline syringe (Epipen). If used immediately after the first sign of a systemic symptom following a bee attack, this injection will stop the allergic reaction from progressing and could save your life.
“For most varieties of bee stings, antihistamines will help to stop itching and lessen swelling, and no preventive therapy will be necessary. If you are severely allergic to bee stings, talk to a doctor about getting venom immunotherapy (allergy injections) from an allergist to reduce the risk of getting anaphylaxis from subsequent stings.
“Immunotherapy or allergy injections are generally not necessary for patients who have experienced only local reactions to stings. However, when it comes to children, allergy injections should be considered if the child has a respiratory reaction, such as an asthma attack, or a serious systemic reaction like anaphylactic shock.
“For adults, immunotherapy should also be considered if they have a respiratory reaction, serious anaphylactic shock, or if they break out in a rash immediately after the sting,” says Dr Levin.
(Pharma Dynamics, Press release, February 2012)
Bee swarms: survival tips