Are bee stings more of a threat than snake bites during summer?

Posted on 3 December 2018

Dr Vernon Wessels, an ER24 Global Assist emergency doctor who has treated many animal and insect bites says the most common summer problems are not what you think.

“When you’re at an outdoor party or picnic, with lots of cold drinks around, bees are your biggest issue,” says Dr Wessels. “Snake bites aren’t as common as you might think. Snakes tend to avoid people, so snake bites are normally due to people being where they shouldn’t be.”

Advice that could save your life

Stay calm

If you do experience a bite or a sting, Dr Wessels advises the first thing you do is keep calm. “The biggest mistake you can make with an animal or insect bite is to panic. When you panic, all logic goes out the window. There are many cases of people being injured in car accidents while racing to a hospital to treat a bee sting that would not have had serious effects.”

Call for help

The second thing to remember is: do not try to remove the venom. “You’re not going to get it out by cutting it,” Dr Wessels warns. “Rather apply a cool ice pack to the area, and call for medical help. If the person is allergic to bee stings, and there is anaphylaxis, they will develop issues like swelling and airway problems. So the sooner you can get help, the better!”

How to treat common bites and stings

Act fast

Quick treatment is also important for spider bites. “South Africa has only two common venomous spiders – the Violin and Black Widow – so we rarely see a death from a spider bite,” Dr Wessels says. “But we do see some nasty wounds! None of the spiders or insects that bite you have clean jaws, so often it’s not the toxin that does the damage, but the infection. Post-bite cellulitis is very common, and it should be treated progressively with antibiotics.”

Steer clear

Dog bites might also pose a problem this summer, given the recent rabies outbreak in certain areas. “Do not approach wild animals or stray dogs,” Dr Wessels warns. “And if you do get bitten – even if it’s by a pet – seek immediate medical assistance. Rabies is vaccine-preventable, but once it develops it is almost always fatal in humans if effective treatment following a bite or other form of exposure is not given.”

Remember, doctors know best

And despite what you’ve seen in the movies, you shouldn’t urinate on a bluebottle sting. “Urine is [always] not sterile,” says Dr Wessels, “so by urinating on the wound you could introduce an infection. There are various home remedies for bites and stings, and some may have some effect, but they are not medically recommended.” While urine is warm it is perhaps not warm enough to effectively inactivate the marine venom.  Clean, warm (not scalding) water is more effective if is readily available.

Be prepared

Next, be prepared. “If you’re allergic to bee stings, for example, you should always have your Epi-pen with you when you go outdoors,” Dr Wessels says. “If you don’t, then at least have some antihistamine tablets* in your bag. We see this often on call-outs: the patient will say they are allergic to bee stings, but they left their Epi-pen at home. That’s like leaving your pump at home if you’re asthmatic.”

Use common sense

Finally, be sensible. “Burns and drowning are big issues during the summer,” Dr Wessels says. “Sometimes it’s because people do silly things. The moment alcohol is involved, inhibitions go, and people start doing backward somersaults into the shallow end of a swimming pool. Sometimes guys will try to light a fire using petrol, forgetting that it doesn’t only ignite in the fuel, but in the atmosphere as well. That’s when they get flash burns. Let common sense prevail. Enjoy the summer, and don’t do anything silly.”

Burns: What you need to know

* In a severe allergic reaction antihistamine tablets may not work quickly enough. An EpiPen works quickly but for a short time only, so do seek medical attention after using it.


Published in First Aid

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.