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How to Ease the Pain of a Sting

Will home remedies that ease the pain of a bee sting work against wasp or yellowjacket stings? Readers offer several from the pantry.

How do you ease the pain of an insect sting? We have heard from many readers about their favorite remedies to take the edge off after too close an encounter with a stinger. Some people make a paste of baking soda with water and apply that. We have also heard from numerous readers that a freshly cut onion or a potato put on the sting can help.

Beekeeper Praises Cut Onion for Stings:

Q. I am a beekeeper. Back in 1981, when I was starting out, I got stung 118 times by honeybees. I was working a neighbor’s hives.

These stings were all under my right arm, just below the arm pit, where the glove came to an end. My wife cut an onion in half and used a towel to hold it in place over the stings. After about 30 minutes, you could not tell I had been stung.

A. Thanks for sharing your experience with the onion remedy for stings. When we first learned about it years ago, we checked with onion chemist Eric Block, PhD. He confirmed that fresh-cut onions contain enzymes that can help degrade the compounds in a sting.

Sliced Potato to Ease the Pain of a Yellow Jacket Sting:

Q. When I was a kid, I was stung by a yellow jacket on a camping trip. One of our camping neighbors recommended cutting a potato and placing it on the sting. That really stopped the pain! It is also less stinky than an onion, which you have suggested in the past.

A. Thanks for sharing a novel remedy. We have heard of using a cut potato to heal a wart, but we were unfamiliar with using potato for a sting.

Other remedies for stings utilize common pantry products. Some people report relief from mixing meat tenderizer into a paste with a little water or vinegar and applying that to the sting. Baking soda mixed with vinegar foams in a very satisfying way and is also reputed to stop the pain quickly.

Additional Testimonial on Onion for a Wasp Sting:

Q. Last week a red wasp stung my finger. It had gotten in one of the drawers in my bathroom and nailed me when I reached for my hairbrush. That hurt so much! Within minutes my whole finger was twice its size and I could not do anything for the excruciating pain as my entire hand started to swell.

In desperation I went online looking for something to help and found your website after 30 agonizing minutes. I cut an onion and started rubbing the cut end on the sting. Within seven minutes the pain began to ease and within 30 the pain was almost gone. The swelling had subsided by almost half and I was able to get ready for work.

I taped the onion on my finger and within a couple of hours all of the swelling was gone. Onion works well for a red wasp sting.

A. We have been writing about raw onion for stings for more than 20 years. Eric Block, PhD, is one of the world’s leading experts on onion chemistry. He told us that onions contain an enzyme that can break down the inflammatory compounds that cause pain and swelling in response to a sting.

If you like such approaches, we have many more sting solutions and hundreds of other simple treatments in our book from National Geographic (The People’s Pharmacy Quick & Handy Home Remedies). Although such therapies can help many, those who are allergic to insect stings must be alert for a life-threatening reaction called anaphylactic shock. This requires an epinephrine injection and emergency medical attention.

Does Onion Ease the Pain of All Stings?

This reader asks an interesting question.

Q. Is there a difference between the venoms from yellow jackets, wasps, honey bees or hornets? I have heard that a cut onion might ease the pain from a sting but wonder whether it would work equally for different stings.

A. There are substantial differences among the chemical ingredients found in the stings of various insects, but no one has done research on the effectiveness of home remedies against various venoms. The medical literature is concentrated almost entirely on the problem of allergic reactions to insect stings, and not to the question of how to ease the pain of an ordinary sting reaction. An allergic reaction can be life threatening, and people who are allergic to stings either of honeybees or of wasps or yellow jackets should keep an EpiPen with them for emergency use.

Home Remedies for Stings:

Many people report that applying a freshly cut onion helps ease the pain from both wasp and bee stings. Decades ago, when we spoke with renowned onion chemist Eric Block, PhD, he assured us that onions contain enzymes that can speed breakdown of pro-inflammatory compounds in the venom from bee stings. Wasp stings do contain different compounds, with the exception of hyaluronidase, common to both wasps and bees.

Some readers insist that a paste of meat tenderizer works well for wasp and fire ant stings. Vinegar has also been reported to be helpful against fire ants. Your idea that various stings might respond differently to home remedies is reasonable. We only wish there were some research to tell us which remedies ease the pain of specific stings.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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