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Allergy Shots for Insect Stings

Treatment Overview

Allergy shots for insect stings is a type of immunotherapy. A series of allergy shots is given to reduce your sensitivity to allergens that cause an allergic reaction. Small doses of allergens are injected under the skin. Over time, allergy shots can make your reaction to allergens less severe. To treat allergies to insect stings, very small amounts of the venom of the insect or insects are used. The treatment also is sometimes called venom immunotherapy (VIT).

You can get shots to treat allergies to stings from:

  • Honeybees.
  • Yellow jackets.
  • Hornets.
  • Paper wasps.
  • Fire ants.

In some cases, your doctor may recommend rush immunotherapy. Several shots are given over a period of days to weeks. This type of treatment can provide faster protection in the short term. But you will still need to have regular shots over the long term.

What To Expect

Allergy shots are usually given in a doctor's office. It is normal to stay in the doctor's office for a short time after getting an allergy shot to be watched for possible serious reactions to the injected insect venom.

Redness and warmth at the shot site are common. But they'll go away after a short time.

Why It Is Done

Allergy shots can prevent life-threatening reactions and also reduce anxiety about insect stings.

An allergic reaction that spreads far from the sting or that affects the entire body is called a systemic reaction. A less serious type of systemic reaction may only involve your skin. It can cause hives or deeper skin swelling (a cutaneous reaction), but it doesn't affect the tongue or throat or cause breathing problems. A more serious type of systemic reaction can cause anaphylaxis, which is not common but can be life-threatening. Allergy shots are usually recommended if an adult or child has had a severe systemic reaction, especially anaphylaxis. The shots can reduce the risk of another severe systemic reaction.

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How Well It Works

Allergy shots for insect stings can reduce your chances of having another severe systemic allergic reaction from 60% to about 5%.footnote 1

It is not clear exactly how effective the protection against future stings is after the treatment has ended. In about 80 to 90 out of 100 cases, people who were treated will still be protected against systemic reactions even if tests show some remaining immune sensitivity.footnote 1

Risks

Allergy shots are safe if the shots are given correctly. The most common side effects are redness and warmth at the shot site. Some people may have reactions near where they had the shot, such as itching, hives, or swelling of the skin. More serious but less common side effects include symptoms that affect other parts of the body. Examples are hives, itching, and trouble breathing.

In rare cases, a person may have a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) to the shots. Because of this possibility, the shots are given in a doctor's office or other setting where emergency care can be provided if needed. You must report any delayed reaction that you have to a shot. Late reactions can happen anytime within 24 hours after a shot.

Allergy shots may not be right for you if you:

  • Have another condition, such as asthma. You may be more likely to have a severe reaction to the shots. You should have your asthma well controlled before you get allergy shots.
  • Have an autoimmune disease, such as lupus.
  • Are taking beta-blockers, such as propranolol (Inderal, for example). They are often used to treat heart conditions, glaucoma, migraine headaches, and high blood pressure.
  • Are taking ACE inhibitors, such as captopril (Capoten, for example) or lisinopril (Prinivil, Zestril, or Zestoretic, for example). These are often prescribed for high blood pressure and a variety of heart conditions. Talk to your doctor first about the potential risks of allergy shots.
  • Are not able to communicate about reactions to shots. Most doctors don't give allergy shots to children younger than age 5.

References

Citations

  1. Golden DB, et al. (2011). Stinging insect hypersensitivity: A practice parameter update 2011. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 127(4): 852–854.e23.

Credits

Current as of: April 20, 2022

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Martin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine

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