Who Has Insect Allergies?

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board

Most people have at least a mild reaction to being stung by a hornet or fire ant. These reactions are considered a nuisance rather than an allergy. However, there are some people who have severe reactions. Their reactions can be more serious and last for days. A few may even go into anaphylaxis, a life-threatening emergency.1,2

The Hymenoptera (hi-men-op-turah) family of insects causes the most allergic reactions to stings. This group includes:1

  • Honeybees and bumblebees
  • Paper wasps
  • Yellow jackets
  • Yellow hornets, white-faced hornets
  • Fire ants, harvester ants, bulldog ants, and jack jumper ants

Counting insect sting reactions

Venom allergies may develop at any age. However, adults tend to have more severe reactions and more deaths resulting from those reactions.1

Men are more often affected than women. Doctors believe this is probably because men are more likely to have jobs that keep them outdoors. Beekeepers and their family members are at highest risk of developing this allergy because they are stung more often.1

However, doctors believe sting allergies are undercounted. This is because most people do not know they have an insect allergy until they react to a sting.1

Chances of an allergic reaction

About 3 of every 100 people in the United States are known to have an insect sting allergy. Some estimates go as high as 7 out of 100 worldwide. These reactions can be mild, moderate, or severe.1,2

The more you are stung, the higher your chances of having a more severe reaction or anaphylaxis. If you have a moderate reaction, called a large location reaction, you may be more likely to have a severe reaction later. However, research is not clear about exactly how much more allergic you become after multiple stings.1,3

If you had anaphylaxis before due to an insect sting, your risk of having a similar reaction is 30 to 60 percent. The chances of a similar or worse reaction to later stings decreases over time. People who can be treated with venom immunotherapy have a lower chance of anaphylaxis.1

Deaths due to stings

At least 40 people in the United States die each year due to an insect sting. Deaths due to insect stings are probably undercounted because sudden deaths outdoors may be assumed to be a heart attack or stroke. The heart or breathing stops in an average of 15 minutes in these cases.1

About half of people who died of an insect sting reaction did not know they were allergic.1

Anaphylaxis symptoms involve more than 1 organ in the body and may include some combination of:2

  • Swelling of throat or tongue
  • Trouble breathing
  • Dizziness
  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach cramps
  • Drop in blood pressure
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Itching and hives

People with underlying heart disease or those who cannot handle physical stress well are more likely to die of anaphylaxis caused by an insect sting. This is thought to be because of the strain anaphylaxis puts on the heart and other organs at the same time.1

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