An allergic reaction to a sting occurs when your body's immune system overreacts to substances called allergens in the venom of stinging insects such as bees, wasps, hornets, or fire ants.
Minor allergic reactions occur around the site of the sting. This is called a localized reaction, and it can cause pain, itching, redness, swelling, and hives near the site of the sting.
A more serious allergic reaction can spread throughout your entire body. This is called a systemic reaction. It can cause symptoms such as itching, hives, and swelling of the tongue, throat, or other body parts.
A life-threatening systemic allergic reaction called anaphylaxis can cause severe symptoms such as confusion, trouble breathing, shock, and sometimes death.
Allergy shots work by putting small amounts of insect venom into your body, making you less sensitive over time to the venom.
Getting a series of allergy shots can prevent a systemic allergic reaction or make it less severe. Allergy shots aren't needed if you have mild, local allergic reactions to insect stings. Only about 5 to 10 people out of 100 who have localized reactions to insect stings go on to have a more serious, whole-body allergic reaction.2 This means that 90 to 95 out of 100 people who have localized reactions don't ever have a whole-body reaction to an insect sting.
Allergy shots can greatly reduce your risk of having another life-threatening reaction if you've had one before. Imagine a group of 100 people who have had a life-threatening reaction. Without allergy shots, up to 60 of those 100 people will have another life-threatening reaction in the future. But if those 100 people get allergy shots, only 5 of them will have another life-threatening reaction.1 This treatment is most effective after an entire course of allergy shots is complete.
After allergy tests have identified the insect(s) you are allergic to, you can begin to get the shots. At first, you will get weekly shots of small doses of venom and allergens from the insect(s) that cause your allergies. After about 4 to 6 months of weekly shots, you will get a regular dose, called a maintenance dose, every 4 weeks for another 4 to 6 months. Finally, you will keep getting monthly shots for 3 to 5 years, depending on the type of stings that cause your allergies. For example, fire ant allergies require longer treatment than other stinging insect allergies.
If you have had severe reactions to insect stings in the past, you may want to get a series of allergy shots on a faster schedule. For this you get allergy shots every few hours on one day or every few days. This helps to rapidly increase your tolerance to an allergen. After the first shot, you must wait to see if you have a reaction to the shot. If you don't have a reaction, you get more shots throughout the day. You (or your child) may feel anxious about receiving the next shot. So it may help to bring a book or something to distract you while you wait.
This treatment usually works in 1 to 8 days instead of the standard treatment, which takes several months. You may have this "rush" treatment if you have severe or life-threatening allergic reactions to insect stings, are a long distance from any type of health care center, have severe allergic asthma, or are about to travel.
Allergy shots are safe for most people. The most common side effects are redness and warmth at the injection site. Some people may have large local reactions that include itching, hives, or swelling of the skin near the injection site.
But allergy shots can trigger a more serious whole-body reaction, which may include trouble breathing or swelling in the deep layers of the skin. In rare cases, a person may have a life-threatening allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) to the shots. Because of this, the shots are given in a clinic or other health care setting where emergency care can be provided if needed.
Talk with your doctor if you have an autoimmune disease (such as lupus) or are taking medicine for heart problems (such as beta-blockers). Allergy shots may not be safe for you.
Your doctor may advise you to have allergy shots for insect stings if:
|Have allergy shots||Don't have allergy shots|
|What is usually involved?|
|What are the benefits?|
|What are the risks and side effects?|
You may have:
Are you interested in what others decided to do? Many people have faced this decision. These personal stories may help you decide.
These stories are based on information gathered from health professionals and consumers. They may be helpful as you make important health decisions.
"I have had systemic reactions to insect stings before, although none were life-threatening. I work in the landscaping and grounds maintenance industry, so I am outdoors almost every day mowing lawns, trimming hedges, tending flowerbeds, and similar activities that really put me at risk of getting stung. I carry an allergy kit to my work sites, but I wanted to do something to reduce my sensitivity to stings and cut the risk that I might have a really bad reaction. So I've decided to have immunotherapy."
— Rudy, age 26
"I have what must be a mild allergy to bee stings. I've been stung three or four times over the past decade, and I always swell up quite a bit—my whole arm or leg or wherever the sting is—and break out in hives around the sting, too. But it never gets any worse than that. For me, allergy shots would just be too much bother and expense for something that only happens once in a great while, and my doctor tells me it's not really needed. My doctor and I make sure I have an up-to-date allergy kit just in case, but I've never had to use it."
— Max, age 57
"Our daughter was 14 years old when she had a pretty severe reaction to a yellow-jacket sting. She had swelling over most of her body and a bad outbreak of hives. She was very frightened. After talking it over with our doctor and an allergist, we decided to have her take allergy shots. They told us her risk of having another similar reaction was fairly high, and we felt it was worth the cost and the bother of having the allergy shots to reduce the risk. We also make sure she keeps her allergy kit close by."
— Maureen, age 37
"Our 7-year-old boy was stung on the shoulder by a hornet at a family picnic. He was uncomfortable with a patch of hives across his back, but he got over it without anything worse. After talking things over with our pediatrician, we decided allergy shots wouldn't be needed. The chances he'll have another reaction like that are pretty low. But we do keep an allergy kit at home and with the nurse at school."
— Kimberly, age 24
Your personal feelings are just as important as the medical facts. Think about what matters most to you in this decision, and show how you feel about the following statements.
Reasons to choose allergy shots for insect stings
Reasons not to choose allergy shots for insect stings
I won't use an allergy kit, because I don't want to give myself a shot.
I feel comfortable giving myself a shot if I need to.
I am worried about getting stung and having a bad reaction.
I am more afraid of the allergy shots than of my reaction to the insect stings.
I don't mind spending the time and money to have allergy shots if it means I can avoid a bad reaction to an insect sting.
I don't want to spend the time or money to have allergy shots.
My other important reasons:
My other important reasons:
Now that you've thought about the facts and your feelings, you may have a general idea of where you stand on this decision. Show which way you are leaning right now.
Having allergy shots
NOT having allergy shots
1. I had a serious (whole-body) reaction to an insect sting in the past. This means I have a higher chance of having another bad reaction if I get stung again.
2. With allergy shots, small amounts of insect venom are injected into my body. This may prevent or reduce a bad reaction if I get stung again.
3. My chances of having a serious reaction to an insect sting are low. I was stung in the past, but I had only a slight skin reaction.
1. Do you understand the options available to you?
2. Are you clear about which benefits and side effects matter most to you?
3. Do you have enough support and advice from others to make a choice?
1. How sure do you feel right now about your decision?
2. Check what you need to do before you make this decision.
3. Use the following space to list questions, concerns, and next steps.
|Primary Medical Reviewer||E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine|
|Specialist Medical Reviewer||Rohit K Katial, MD - Allergy and Immunology|