Many people think of warm weather when they think of insect allergies. Warm weather does signal the arrival of some unwanted visitors like stinging and biting insects. However, you can find two very common “bugs” all year long in homes and buildings. Neither one needs to bite or sting you to cause an allergic reaction, but both trigger allergy and asthma in many people.
What Kinds of Insects Cause Allergic Reactions?
There are many different kinds of insects or “insect-like bugs” that can cause an allergic reaction:
Bees, wasps, hornets, yellow-jackets and fire ants are the most common stinging insects that cause an allergic reaction. When these insects sting you, they inject a toxic substance called venom. Most people stung by these insects recover within hours or days. In others, this venom can trigger a life-threatening allergic reaction.
Mosquitoes, kissing bugs, bedbugs, fleas and certain flies are the most common biting insects known to cause an allergic reaction. Most people bitten by insects suffer pain, redness, itching, stinging and minor swelling in the area around the bite. Rarely, insect bites may trigger a life-threatening allergic reaction.
A bite from a Lone Star tick can cause people to develop an allergy to meat. These ticks carry alpha-gal (a sugar). When a tick bites a person, it transfers alpha-gal into the bloodstream. The person’s immune system then reacts to it. Alpha-gal is also found in mammal meat (beef, lamb, pork). If you have allergy symptoms after eating meat, see an allergist.
Non-stinging and non-biting insects can also cause allergic reactions, particularly cockroaches and insect-like dust mites. These two insects may be the most common cause of year-round allergy and asthma. Unlike a cockroach, a dust mite is too small to see with the naked eye. The cockroach and dust mite’s waste and body cause allergic reactions. They also can trigger asthma symptoms and asthma attacks.
What Are the Signs of an Allergic Reaction to Insects?
Most people stung or bitten by insects suffer pain, redness, itching and minor swelling in the area around the bite or sting. This is a normal reaction. Most people get better within hours or days.
An allergic reaction to insects that don’t sting or bite, like cockroaches or dust mites, is different. You may sneeze, cough, have a runny or stuffy nose, or itchy eyes, nose, mouth or throat. These symptoms can be confused with the common cold, but last for weeks or months at a time. If you have asthma, an allergic reaction could trigger asthma symptoms or an asthma attack.
People can have a serious allergic reaction to stinging or biting insects. A life-threatening allergic reaction(anaphylaxis) produces signs and symptoms that require immediate medical attention. Without immediate treatment, anaphylaxis may cause death. Symptoms usually involve more than one organ system (part of the body), such as the skin or mouth, the lungs, the heart, and the gut. Some symptoms include:
- Skin rashes, itching or hives
- Swelling of the lips, tongue or throat
- Shortness of breath, trouble breathing or wheezing (whistling sound during breathing)
- Dizziness and/or fainting
- Stomach pain, vomiting, bloating or diarrhea
- Feeling like something awful is about to happen
Other serious but non-allergic reactions include:
- A toxic reaction that happens when the body reacts to insect venom like it is a poison. A toxic reaction can cause symptoms similar to those of an allergic reaction. Other symptoms include nausea, fever, fainting, seizures, shock and even death.
- Serum sickness which is an unusual reaction to a foreign substance in the body. It can cause symptoms hours or days after the sting or bite. Symptoms include fever, joint pain, other flu-like symptoms and sometimes hives.
If you are concerned that you may have an allergy to insect venom, see an allergist.
Your allergist should take a detailed medical history, including questions about previous stings (how many there have been and where you were stung), your reaction to those stings (what you experienced, how long the reaction lasted and what you did to get relief) and any additional symptoms.
Your allergist may diagnose an allergy to insect venom through a skin-prick test, a blood test or an intradermal skin test.
In the skin-prick test, a small amount of a liquid containing insect venom is placed on the back or forearm, which is then pricked with a small, sterile probe to allow the liquid to seep into the skin. If a raised, reddish spot forms within 15 to 20 minutes, that can indicate an allergy. In the blood test, a blood sample is sent to a laboratory to test for the presence of immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies to insect venom.
If the results are inconclusive (for example, if your skin-prick or blood test is negative, but your medical history indicates that you have had an allergic reaction), your allergist will likely recommend an intradermal skin test, in which a small amount of venom extract is injected just under the skin. The site is examined after about 15 minutes for signs of an allergic reaction. This test is considered more accurate than the skin-prick or blood tests in determining the presence of IgE antibodies.
The strength of a reaction to a skin or blood test does not indicate how severe your allergic reaction will be the next time you are stung.
ALLERGY TREATMENT & MANAGEMENT
Avoiding contact with stinging insects is the key to successfully managing this allergy. These steps can help:
• Insects are most likely to sting if their homes are disturbed, so have hives and nests around your home destroyed. Because this activity can be dangerous, you should hire a trained exterminator.
• If you spot stinging insects, remain calm and quiet, and slowly move away.
• Avoid brightly colored clothing and perfume when outdoors. Many stinging insects are searching for food and could confuse you with a flower.
• Be careful outdoors when cooking, eating or drinking sweet beverages like soda or juice. Cover food and drinks to keep insects out.
• Wear closed-toe shoes outdoors and avoid going barefoot to steer clear of stepping on a stinging insect.
• Avoid loose-fitting garments that can trap insects between material and skin.
If you have an anaphylactic reaction, inject epinephrine immediately and call 911.
After a serious reaction to an insect sting, make an appointment with an allergist / immunologist. With proper testing, your allergist can diagnose your condition and determine the best form of treatment.
Immunotherapy (allergy shots) may be effective long-term treatment for stinging insect allergy. Your allergist will give you shots containing small doses of your allergen, allowing your body to build a natural immunity to the trigger.