Red wasps primarily inhabit the eastern and central regions of the United States. While red wasps are not particularly aggressive, they will sting if threatened. And unlike honey bees, a single red wasp can sting multiple times. Furthermore, a threatened red wasp emits alarm pheromones -- chemicals that attract nearby nest mates to help in the attack. When a red wasp stings, it injects a small amount of venom into the skin, which triggers development of a small, painful, itchy welt that's white in the center surrounded by a red ring. Most red wasp stings can be easily treated at home -- unless an allergic reaction develops, which requires emergency medical care.
The first order of business when you get stung by a red wasp -- or another type of wasp -- is to wash the area to reduce the possibility of infection. Wash with soap and running water, if available. Wiping the area with an antibacterial wipe, hand towelette or hand sanitizer will suffice if soap and running water are not available. Since red wasps typically retain their stinger even after multiple stings, you don't have to worry about removing the stinger like you do with honey bee stings.
Apply Ice or a Cold Pack
Applying ice or a cold pack to the sting will cool the area, reducing both pain and itchiness. It will also help control swelling of the welt. Don't apply ice directly to your skin; wrap it in a cloth or paper towel. Keep the ice or cold pack on the area for about 10 to 15 minutes, until the area feels slightly numb. Allow the skin to rewarm and then reapply as needed.
Rest and Elevate
While a wasp sting usually causes a limited local reaction, resting and elevating the affected area can help limit spread of the wasp venom and swelling -- especially if you've been stung multiple times. You can do this while applying ice or a cold pack.
Consider a Topical Treatment and an Oral Antihistamine
Wasp stings cause both pain and itchiness. Over-the-counter colloidal oatmeal or calamine lotion, or hydrocortisone or diphenhydramine cream can help reduce itchiness. An over-the-counter topical anesthetic spray or cream that contains benzocaine or lidocaine might help reduce both pain and itchiness. You might also consider taking an oral, over-the-counter antihistamine to limit discomfort from the sting.
Warnings and Precautions
With a normal reaction to a red wasp sting, the discomfort usually peaks and begins resolving in a matter of hours. The greatest concern with a red wasp sting is that an allergic reaction will occur. This can take the form of a large local reaction that increases over the first 24 to 72 hours, or a rapidly evolving and life-threatening systemic reaction that develops within minutes to an hour after the sting.
A large local reaction is characterized by a spreading welt that grows in the first few days after the sting, typically reaching a size of about 2 inches in diameter around each sting within 48 to 72 hours. By definition, the reaction remains localized to the area around the sting. While a large local reaction is treated the same as a normal reaction, it signals the possibility of an allergy that could cause a life-threatening reaction if you get stung again. Therefore, it's important to see your doctor for allergy testing if you experience a large local reaction after a red wasp sting.
Signs and symptoms of a systemic allergic reaction -- anaphylaxis -- after a red wasp sting typically begin within minutes after you've been stung. This type of allergic reaction can occur even if you've never had an abnormal reaction in the past. Call 9-1-1 for emergency medical care if you experience any signs or symptoms that might signal an anaphylactic reaction after a red wasp sting, including:
-- widespread hives, itchiness or flushing
-- tickling or itchiness in the mouth or throat
-- swelling of the face, lips, mouth or tongue
-- cough, wheezing, chest tightness or shortness of breath
-- dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting
-- nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or abdominal pain
Reviewed and revised by: Tina M. St. John, M.D.