This story was originally published in July 2021.
One hot day last July, I was walking through a midcoast nature preserve with a friend when suddenly I felt a sharp, needle-like pinch on the heel of my hand.
I had disturbed a wasp or other stinging insect, and the resulting sting hurt, with the pain increasing as the venom spread out through my hand and then arm. There was a nearby lake, and we went there so I could get some relief from the cool water, but the pain didn’t go away. On the way home, my hot, red hand continued to swell, and even though I applied ice as soon as I could and took an Ibuprofen tablet, the discomfort didn’t abate. It took days for the swelling to return to normal and for the itching and pain to stop.
I figured that the whole experience was a normal, if unpleasant, part of spending time outside during the summer, and just felt thankful that I did not have a severe allergic reaction to the toxins in the venom. (If so, our quiet woodsy walk easily could have turned into a medical emergency.)
But earlier this week, when I was stung by a paper wasp that had come into my kitchen, I was able to take quick actions that helped with the swelling and pain. I made a paste of baking soda and water and plastered that over the sting site. I left it on until it started to fall off and then reapplied. Perhaps it was just a coincidence, but the swelling, pain, itching and soreness were not nearly as severe as they had been last summer, and I started wondering if there are other folk remedies that might actually help after you are stung by a wasp, bee or hornet.
A quick consultation with the internet and a longer chat with Elizabeth Yori, a Belfast-based naturopathic doctor, assured me that there are indeed things to try.
But first, it’s important to note that if you have symptoms of a severe allergic reaction, which can include hives, difficulty breathing, severe itching, swelling of the tongue and throat, rapid pulse, dizziness, nausea and vomiting or even a loss of consciousness, you may be experiencing anaphylactic shock and need to seek medical help quickly.
For those who are not experiencing a severe reaction, here are some home remedies that may help if you have been stung.
First, remove the stinger if it has been left behind by the insect. You can scrape a credit card or even just a playing card across the sting to help do this, and then wash the site with soap and water.
Then, if you have access to it, use ice or put a cold compress on the area of the sting, which can help reduce pain and swelling.
Make a poultice with broadleaf plantain, a medicinal herb that grows in lawns, fields and along roadsides. If you find it, chew up the leaves and apply it to the sting. “It’s what we call a spit poultice,” Yori, the current president of the Maine Association of Naturopathic Doctors, said. “It’s a traditional use.”
According to the website ediblewildfood.com, you can recognize broadleaf plantain by its green, oval or egg-shaped leaves, which grow in a rosette. The leaves have thick stems that meet at a base. Long-pointed, green, petite flowers grow from the base. Yori said it is also possible to use the leaves of jewelweed, which have anti-inflammatory traits, in the same way.
Mix baking soda with water and apply the paste as a poultice. “It can draw the venom out a little bit,” the doctor said.
Make a poultice with clay that you would use for face masks. Mix the clay with water and apply it to the site, Yori said.
Make a solution of one part meat tenderizer and four parts water and apply it to the sting site. An enzyme in meat tenderizer is believed to break down the protein that causes pain and itching, according to the health information website Healthline.com.
Put a small amount of honey on the area, cover with a loose bandage and leave it on for up to an hour. Honey may help with pain, itching and wound healing, according to Healthline.com.
Use soothing substances such as aloe vera or calendula cream on the affected site, Yori said. These may help to relieve some of the symptoms of a sting, including pain and skin irritation.
According to Healthline.com, other traditional remedies include taking anti-inflammatory painkillers such as Advil, using hydrocortisone cream or calamine lotion to reduce itching and redness, and also using an oral antihistamine such as Benadryl in the case of severe itching and swelling. It’s nice to know there are a lot of options for the next time I get in the way of a wasp or a bee.