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A yellow jacket, or Vespula, is a stinging insect that resembles a bee due to its characteristic black and yellow stripes, but it is actually a wasp found in North America.
Yellow jackets are the leading cause of stings in the United States, which has given them a reputation for being aggressive. But like most insects, they only sting to defend themselves against perceived danger.
Once provoked, yellow jackets can become extremely hostile, especially if you shoo them away physically or with other means, such as insecticides or smoke. When their guard is up, they even invite others from their pack to join in the attack. They release chemicals called pheromones into the air and into the victim’s body along with the venom, which attracts other yellow jackets.
This is why you must try to remain calm after spotting a yellow jacket nearby or even after getting stung. The trick is to slowly distance yourself to a safe space without disturbing the creature. Any abrupt move can turn them violent and make them sting you, probably more than once.
Yellow Jackets Versus Honeybees
Honeybees have a hooked stinger that gets stuck to the victim’s skin when it goes inside and detaches from the bee’s body when it tries to fly away after stinging. The loss of the stinger ensures the bee can’t bite you again. In fact, the bee often dies after its first sting as its abdomen and rear end gets fatally ruptured in the process.
Yellow jackets can safely pull out their stinger from human skin and are therefore fully capable of stinging you multiple times. A bee sting is painful but poses no serious threat to your health and does not require medical treatment, whereas a yellow jacket’s sting can have some serious complications and therefore warrants immediate medical attention.
Honeybees only feed on flower nectar, but yellow jackets are attracted to any food that contains sugar and protein, including meat.
Why Yellow Jackets Sting
Yellow jackets don’t sting unless they feel they are in danger. They can perceive any of the following as a threat:
- Stepping on the insect
- Handling it roughly
- Endangering its nest or habitat
Yellow jackets have a sharp piercing structure called a stinger attached to their rear end, which they use to penetrate the victim’s skin and then release a toxic fluid under it.
The skin puncture causes a lot of pain while the venom triggers an inflammatory reaction in the body. The immune system perceives the sting as a security breach and automatically goes into defense mode.
As a result, the body releases an inflammatory chemical called histamine to fight the venom, which induces tissue inflammation around the sting site.
Symptoms of a Yellow Jacket Sting
The inflammation triggered by a yellow jacket sting is limited to the sting site but can spread to other areas if the wound becomes infected. (1)(2) This inflammation becomes visible in the form of swelling, redness, itching, and various other discomforting symptoms.
People generally experience the following symptoms after getting stung by a yellow jacket:
People who are allergic to the wasp’s venom will experience a more systemic response that will trigger inflammation throughout the body and not just at the sting site.
The sting of a yellow jacket, though mild, can take a turn for the worst, especially if it triggers an allergic or sensitivity reaction. In such a case, the body’s inflammatory markers increase in concentration as the body prepares to defend itself, and this inflammation can lead to some serious issues.
One very common reaction involves swelling of the tongue and tightness of the chest. Both can block the air pipe and cause hypoxia, or reduced oxygen content in the lungs. It is very important to seek medical treatment immediately under such circumstances.
Medical Treatment for a Yellow Jacket Sting
If the sting results in a mild reaction, simple first aid at home is enough to relieve the symptoms. This involves cleaning the wound, applying a venom-neutralizing agent, and icing the site to bring down the inflammation.
But some degree of medication may be needed if you develop discomforting symptoms that don’t respond to preliminary treatment.
Meanwhile, severe reactions characterized by extreme distress and potentially life-threatening symptoms qualify as a medical emergency and require immediate treatment by a doctor.
The following medical interventions are commonly prescribed by the doctor to manage the various discomforts associated with a yellow jacket sting:
- Analgesics, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, to ease the pain
- Topical steroids, such as low-dose hydrocortisone cream, for itch-relief
- Oral or intravenous antihistamines to curb hives and severe inflammation
- 0.5–1 mg prednisolone (dose calculated according to body weight) (2)
- Intravenous epinephrine injection to instantly curb anaphylactic shock before it becomes fatal
- Breathing support for severe allergic reactions that may require intubation or ventilator
- Rapidly acting β2-sympathomimetic via inhalation to patients with asthma, marked bronchial obstruction, or a history of anaphylaxis (2)
- Specific immunotherapy for allergic people with a history of multiple stings
Diagnosing Allergies to Wasp Venom
People who are allergic to wasp venom tend to have a systemic reaction after getting stung, which means the entire body is affected. In such a case, the severity of the reaction usually gets progressively worse with each subsequent sting.
So, it is important to go for thorough diagnostic testing the first time you experience any such reaction to insect stings, even if you have mild symptoms.
You can either go to a general physician or an allergy specialist, who will conduct the following tests to determine if you are allergic or not:
- Blood and urine tests
- Chest X-ray
- ECG (electrocardiogram, or heart tracing)
If you test positive for an insect sting allergy, the doctor will put you on a desensitization program, which involves a series of shots administered over many years to make your body less sensitive to the wasp venom. This will ensure that you don’t suffer an extreme reaction in case of a future attack.
Possible Complications of a Yellow Jacket Sting
Most yellow jacket stings trigger a mild to moderate reaction, but the symptoms can sometimes become severe enough to induce the following complications: (3)
- Difficulty swallowing
- Slurred speech
- Swollen tongue
- Tightness in the chest
- Difficulty breathing
- Tingling in the throat
- Excessive swelling
- Skin infection caused by incessantly scratching the sting site
- Anaphylactic shock, a life-threatening allergic reaction that can occur 5–30 minutes after the venomous sting (4)
- Organ dysfunction (5)
When to See a Doctor
A yellow jacket sting qualifies as a medical emergency in the following cases:
- If you are allergic to its venom and develop systemic symptoms
- If you show signs of anaphylaxis, wherein your blood pressure drops so low that it cuts off oxygen supply to the organs and can result in death
- If you get stung inside the mouth or in the eye
- If you experience stomach pain or vomiting
- If the sting site becomes infected, which manifests as a fever or spreading redness
Getting stung by a yellow jacket triggers an inflammatory reaction in the body that can range from mild to severe and has to be treated accordingly. The symptoms are initially localized to the sting site but can gradually spread further, particularly if the affected tissue becomes infected.
The severity of your response will depend on how allergic you are to the insect’s venom. Pre-existing allergies to wasp stings will generate a more extreme immunogenic response by the body, which can be life-threatening if treatment is delayed or improper.
In such cases, the faster you get medical help, the better will be your chance of recovery. People without any such insect sting allergies will usually suffer a mild to moderate reaction that will subside in less than a week with simple home treatment.