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My son’s allergic to bee stings—how can we prevent him from getting stung?
Q: During the summer we like to play outdoors and have picnics. But last summer my son had a serious allergic reaction to a bee sting. He got swollen and itchy, started having problems breathing and needed to be treated in the emergency room. How can we avoid another dangerous insect sting?
Lawrence St. Louis
A: Lawrence, it’s wonderful to enjoy being with your family outdoors. But it’s good to do everything you can to prevent your son from getting another insect sting. Allergies to insect stings are fairly common, affecting approximately 1 to 3 percent of people. After a serious allergic reaction like your son had (also known as “anaphylaxis”), there’s about a 50 percent chance of having another serious reaction to a sting.

There are a few steps to take to try to prevent future problems with insect stings:

1. Ask your child’s doctor for a referral to an allergy specialist.
An allergist can review your son’s history and do allergy testing to determine whether he’s allergic to the honeybee, yellow jacket, hornet or wasp. The allergist might also recommend allergy shots, which can significantly reduce the risk of future allergic reactions to stings.

2. Be prepared for an emergency.
Always keep handy emergency medication to give your son in case of an insect sting: injectable epinephrine or adrenaline (such as the EpiPen autoinjector). Be sure your family, your son’s childcare provider and his teacher have the medications on-hand and know how to use them. Consider having your son wear a Medic Alert bracelet indicating his allergy to insect stings.

3. Take precautions outdoors to prevent contact with stinging insects:
  • Don’t rely on insect repellents, which don’t protect against stinging insects.

  • Keep food covered at picnics. Don’t picnic near open garbage cans, which attract insects.

  • Don’t drink sweet beverages from an open can, since insects can get inside and sting you while you’re drinking.

  • Wear long-sleeve shirts and pants, if possible. White clothes are less likely to attract insects than brightly coloured and floral-printed fabrics.

  • Don’t use sweet-smelling perfume, deodorant or hair products, which can attract insects.

  • Wear closed shoes when walking in the grass or at the beach. Don’t walk in sandals or bare feet since you can step on a stinging insect.

  • Periodically inspect the outside of your house for insect nests. Spray nests with insecticide to kill the insects, then destroy the nests.
For more information about allergies to insect stings, visit the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, www.aafa.org.
Karen Sokal-Gutierrez M.D., M.P.H. Pediatrician