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June 2005

The Cure: Treating Bee Stings

Health tips for backpackers experiencing life-threatening or just plain annoying bee stings on the trail

Like those fiery midget habanero peppers, bees and wasps pack a punch way out of proportion to their size. Get stung, and you’re stuck with a few minutes of pain and a few hours of itching, or–if you’re allergic–a potentially life-threatening reaction. Here’s how to handle stings in the backcountry.

Preventing stings

» Don’t use sweet-smelling lotions or fragrant wet wipes; both attract bees.

» Scout for nests in trees and fallen logs and look for swarms before setting up camp. If bees are around while you’re pitching your tent, a nest is probably nearby; relocate.

» Keep food and trash separate from the rest of camp; set up a triangle–tent, kitchen, food storage at each point, all 100 yards apart.

Treating mild reactions

» Check for a stinger (left only by honeybees) and yank it right out with your fingers. If it’s too small to grab, scrape it out with your thumbnail, reversing the direction of entry. Stingers continue to release venom for up to 3 minutes, so don’t waste time looking for a knife or tweezers.

» Take an oral antihistamine (like Benadryl) to alleviate itching and inflammation, or pack a topical medication such as StingEze in your first-aid kit.

» Apply cool compresses to ease the ache.

» Hang in there: The discomfort usually subsides in 2 to 4 hours.

Responding to allergy emergencies

» If you’re allergic, carry injectable epinephrine (like EpiPen) on all trips; tell your hiking partners where it’s packed and how to administer it. If you’re stung and your face, tongue, or throat begins to swell, inject the epinephrine immediately, and take an antihistamine.

» Call for a rescue if you’ve had a severe allergic reaction, even if the epinephrine is working; breathing difficulty can reoccur for up to 24 hours.

» Even people without known allergies can show symptoms like wheezing, hives, and swelling of the lips within minutes of a sting and up to 2 hours later. If this happens, see your doctor when you get home, as subsequent reactions could be life-threatening.

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