Are you allergic to bee venom? Beware bee stings this Summer

Many people are unaware that bee stings can kill, warns expert, after Bridgerton episode with a sting in its tail

The second series of Bridgerton has got fans abuzz, not least because (spoiler alert!) Viscount Anthony Bridgeton’s father, Edmund, dies from a bee sting.

The episode has prompted a UK doctor to encourage people to get tested to find out whether they are also allergic to bee venom, which can cause ‘anaphylactic shock’.

“The death of Edmund Bridgerton may be fictional, but there is an important truth behind it,” says testing expert Dr Quinton Fivelman PhD, who is chief scientific officer at London Medical Laboratory.

“In the UK, around 10 people a year die of bee or wasp stings every summer while in the US, 89 people died from them in 2017.

“This is a subject close to home for me. My uncle died after being stung by a bee.

“The surprising thing is that, just because a person has been stung once without significant reaction, does not mean they will be alright the next time.

“As with most allergies, the first exposure sensitises our body to a particular allergen, so that the second time we are stung the reaction could be far worse.

“In fact, people who have a severe allergic reaction to a bee sting have a 25% to 65% chance of anaphylaxis the next time they are stung.

“It’s important to keep in mind that anyone can become allergic to an insect sting, not only people who already have known allergies such as hay fever or food allergies.

“A recent study in the World Allergy Organization Journal revealed that beekeepers, who we might think would develop protection, are actually more likely to die from a sting.

“People with a history of more than five stings showed a higher risk for anaphylaxis.

“There are several signs to look out for that can warn us if a sting is producing a more severe problem than a painful, but harmless, swelling at the site of the sting.  

“The US Center for Disease Control (CDC) lists the following signs leading to anaphylactic shock:

• A sudden feeling of weakness (caused by a drop in blood pressure)

• Dizziness

• A sense of fear or dread

• A rapid pulse

• Swelling of the airways and throat, making it difficult to breathe

• Severe asthma

• Itching and swelling away from the site of the sting

• Stomach cramps and/or a feeling of sickness

“Surprisingly, bee and wasp stings kill almost 10 people in the UK every year while, despite our greater fear of them, no one has died from the bite of Britain’s only poisonous snake, the adder, since 1975.

“A small allergic reaction at the site of a sting, however painful, will usually respond to an antihistamine and the use of a cold compress.

“To reduce the risk of being stung, obvious precautions include not walking barefoot, avoiding eating outside and not randomly swatting at insects.

“If you are stung by a bee, it is likely to have left its sting, with venom sac attached, in your skin.

“Because it takes a few minutes for all the venom to be injected, quick removal of the sting is important.

“How can people tell if they are likely to develop a more severe reaction after being stung?

“A simple finger prick allergy test is the fastest, safest and most convenient way to establish if someone may be allergic to stings from bees and wasps, as well as nearly 300 other potentially severe allergies, including dairy, seafood, sunflower seeds and nuts.

“The test grades people’s reaction to many common and less familiar potential allergens from 0 to 4.

“A level 4 result indicates high sensitisation has taken place, which could mean a reaction such as an asthma attack or anaphylactic shock may occur if they are exposed to the substance again.

“London Medical Laboratory’s new Allergy Complete blood test is the UK’s most comprehensive allergy test, analysing close to 300 allergens. 

“In our first results, there have been several surprises. We have already informed one client she had become highly sensitised to peaches.

“Despite having eaten them many times before, it meant that if she ate one in the future, it could trigger an anaphylactic shock.

“Although she was surprised, this was confirmed by further testing.

“On the other hand, another customer thought he had become allergic to all seafood, but our test revealed it was only carp and cod, not shellfish like prawns and mussels, which he loved.

“He is now able to eat certain types of seafood once again.

“If a blood test does reveal a strong reaction, there are several steps that people can take to successfully manage accidental exposure to a severe allergen – whether a food type, a particular protein type or an insect sting.

“People who discover that they are at risk of a severe reaction will need to inform their doctor.

“They will probably be prescribed a potentially life-saving, pre-loaded adrenaline injection device such as an EpiPen.

“For those people deemed to be at particular risk, immunotherapy treatment (also called desensitisation) may be recommended.

“In the case of stings, this consists of a course of injections of insect venom starting at very low doses and rising over time to reach a safe level of venom that they might encounter with multiple stings.

“Immunotherapy has two phases, known as ‘initial’ (or ‘up-dosing’) and ‘maintenance’.

“Such testing and treatment, if it had been available to 18th century doctors, would probably have saved Edmund Bridgerton’s life.

“For anyone concerned about their future reaction to a sting, certain foods or other allergens, London Medical Laboratory’s Allergy Complete is the UK’s most comprehensive allergy panel with 295 allergens tested.

“It’s highly accurate, quick and simple to carry out, either at home through the post, or at one of the many drop-in clinics that offer this test across London, the southeast and selected pharmacies and health stores.

Find out more here

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