The Bee Sting Advice You Need to Know Now

We’re sure you’ve been there at some point: You’re minding your own business, smelling the roses, and a big, fuzzy insect starts buzzing around you a bit too close for comfort. While bees are typically harmless when left alone—pissing one off can lead to a shockingly painful sting.

“Bee stings usually feel like a sharp prick or burning sensation,” Kara Wada, MD, clinical assistant professor in the division of allergy immunology at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and founder of The Crunchy Allergist, tells SELF.

That’s because the bee’s stinger that is used to pierce the skin contains venom—an acidic mixture full of proteins, enzymes, and other compounds that helps the bee defend itself against predators.1 When bee venom enters the skin, it immediately begins to cause a local reaction, leading to symptoms like pain, inflamed skin, and swelling, most of which usually resolve in several hours, according to the Mayo Clinic.

“A smaller number of people will get what’s called a large local reaction, and it might be four to five inches of redness, swelling, tenderness, and pain—it can take about a week and a half for that to go down,” Wendy Johnson, MD, MPH, a pediatrician at Tribeca Pediatrics in New York, tells SELF. While this reaction generally isn’t dangerous, it’s certainly more intense than the mild reaction that most people experience. Then there are people who can have a more severe allergic reaction that leads to intense pain, swelling, or even anaphylaxis. This is rare, but it can be life-threatening without emergency treatment (we’ll dive into all these details below).

Thankfully, if you’re not having a severe reaction that requires immediate help but you still want to make the pain go away fast, you have a few options. Ahead, experts explain how to treat a bee sting to make it feel better as soon as possible.

First, it’s important to know how to remove a bee stinger safely

Before you do anything, you’ll want to check to see if the bee’s stinger is still in your skin. If you don’t see a stinger, it’s possible that you were stung by a wasp, hornet, or another insect. That’s because one of the major differences between bees and other stinging insects is that bees have a barbed stinger that remains in the skin long after the bee has left. Because of this barbed stinger, a bee can only sting you once, whereas insects like wasps have a straight stinger that allows them to sting you multiple times.

If you do notice a small black stinger sticking out of your skin, it’s extremely important to remove that stinger right away, “because most of the venom gets released in about the first three seconds or so,” says Dr. Johnson. If you can get it out right away, you may avoid some of the symptoms or at least reduce their severity.

You’ll want to use something with a blunt tip to scrape it off. “The best way to do this is to use a credit card at a 45° angle to the surface of the skin and scrape away from the sting,” says Dr. Wada. If you don’t have a credit card on hand, the next best thing is the back of your fingernail, she says.

Whatever you do, avoid squeezing the stinger to get it out. According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD), even using a tool like tweezers to pluck the stinger out can push that venom deeper into the skin. When possible, stick to using something blunt that can “catch” the stinger directly and pull it out.

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What to put on a bee sting for quick relief

Treating your bee sting at home is the quickest and easiest way to reduce your symptoms. “The goal is to decrease the swelling, inflammation, and pain once you get the stinger out,” says Dr. Johnson. Here are the best steps to take:

Wash the sting and surrounding area with soap and water.

Once you’ve safely removed the stinger from the skin, one of the first things you should do is wash the area around the sting gently with soap and water. If you do this first before applying anything else, you can help reduce your risk of the skin becoming infected.

Use a cold pack and slather on hydrocortisone cream.

After you’ve washed and dried the area around the sting, there are a couple of things that experts recommend. First up: A cold pack. You’ll want to wrap something around the cold compress, like a towel to keep it from irritating the skin. This can reduce pain, tenderness, and swelling, says Dr. Wada. You can do a routine of 10 minutes on then 10 minutes off for a total of 30 to 60 minutes, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. You can also apply over-the-counter (OTC) 1% hydrocortisone cream up to three times per day to reduce inflammation and itching.

Or apply calamine lotion.

Another OTC option is calamine lotion (you know, that signature creamy, pink solution your mom probably slathered on you as a kid). This stuff is a mixture of various compounds that can help reduce the itchiness and irritation caused by many bug bites and stings. Calamine lotion is considered safe for children and infants, so it’s a good option to consider in younger children who have been stung.2

Take an OTC pain reliever.

As for pain relief, there are plenty of safe and effective OTC options available—but Dr. Johnson recommends using something that targets both inflammation and pain, like ibuprofen. In people who can’t take ibuprofen, acetaminophen works just as well to at least help reduce pain, according to the AAD.

Consider talking with your doctor about a prescription.

Sometimes a large local reaction won’t respond to things like over-the-counter pain relievers or medicated creams. In these cases, “these reactions may benefit from a prescription-strength cortisone, especially if the swelling and symptoms are bothersome,” says Dr. Wada.