Fundamentals of allergy to insect bites: What are allergies?

Allergic reaction to an insect bite.

Most people who are bitten by an insect have a minor reaction. This may include some redness, swelling or itching at the site of the sting. This usually disappears in a matter of hours. For some people, however, an insect bite can cause a severe reaction or even death. In the United States, between 90 and 100 bites a year result in death.

What is an allergic reaction?

Your immune system responds to unknown substances with cells that can detect the specific invader. A component of this system are the antibodies. They allow the immune system to recognize unknown substances and play a role in getting rid of them. There are multiple types of antibodies, each with a particular role. One of these subtypes, known as immunoglobulin E (IgE), is associated with the development of allergic reactions.

If you have an allergy, your immune system becomes excessively sensitized to certain substances. Your immune system confuses these substances with the invaders. In the course of responding to this erroneous signal, the immune system produces specific IgE antibodies to that substance.

The first time a person with an allergy to an insect is stung, the immune system can produce a relatively small amount of IgE antibodies directed towards the insect's venom. If it is bitten again by the same type of insect, the IgE antibody response is much faster and more vigorous. This IgE response leads to the release of histamine and other inflammatory chemicals that cause allergy symptoms.

What insects cause allergic reactions?

There are three families of insects that cause the most allergies. These are:

  • Vespidae (Vespidae): Yellow jackets, hornets, wasps.

  • bees (Apidae): honeybees, bumblebees (occasionally), sweat bees (rare)

  • ants (formicidae): fire ants (commonly causing anaphylaxis), collecting ants (less common cause of anaphylaxis)

Rarely, stings of the following insects can cause anaphylaxis:

  • mosquitoes

  • Bedbugs

  • kissing bugs

  • deer flies

How severe is an allergic reaction?

Most of the time, allergic reactions are mild, with local symptoms that may include rash or hives, itching or swelling.

Occasionally, however, an insect bite may produce a more serious reaction called anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency during which breathing can become difficult and blood pressure can fall dangerously. Without timely and adequate treatment, death is a likely result of an episode of anaphylaxis.

Long-term perspective

If you have had an allergic reaction to an insect bite, you are more likely to have a similar or more severe reaction if it is bitten again by the same type of insect. The best way to avoid an allergic reaction, of course, is to avoid being bitten. Tips to avoid being chopped include:

  • Have the hives and nests removed from your house and yard.

  • Wear protective clothing when outdoors.

  • Avoid using bright colors and strong perfumes when outdoors where there might be insects.

  • Be careful when eating outside. Insects are attracted by the smell of food.

If you have had a severe allergic reaction in the past, you should wear a medical alert identification bracelet and carry an epinephrine auto-injection kit.

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