Q. I recently had a bad reaction to a wasp sting (wheezing and hives) and had to go to the ER for treatment. I was given a prescription for epinephrine to carry in case of future stings. My family doctor has told me I need to see an allergist to get on allergy shots for the wasp stings. What is the difference between the epinephrine shot and an allergy shot for the wasp sting - aren't they the same thing?
A. Epinephrine and allergy shots for stinging insects are definitely not the same thing!
Epinephrine is an emergency medication for allergic reactions like the one you had to the wasp sting. An auto-injector, such as an Epipen, should be carried at all times in the event of another severe sting reaction. Some injectors come in two-packs, so that if the reaction is severe and prolonged, a second injection can be given while you are on your way to receiving emergency care. Therefore, a two-pack should not be divided up.
Unfortunately stinging insect reactions are unpredictable in how severe they will be from one instance to the next. Following one sting reaction, the next sting by the same type of insect is up to 70% more likely to cause another systemic reaction. A sting reaction can be life threatening and even fatal. And people can be allergic to more than one stinging insect, including wasps, hornets, yellow jackets, bees, and, in some parts of the U.S., fire ants. In the case of stinging insects, there is specific treatment that prevents severe, life threatening anaphylaxis (severe allergic reaction).
Venom immunotherapy - also known as venom allergy shots - is actual insect venom given to allergic patients regularly over a period of time. By desensitizing gradually - with small but increasing amounts - people become less sensitive to the venom in time. Then, if they are stung, anaphylaxis or any systemic reaction is prevented. Venom immunotherapy is one of the best preventive therapies in medicine, with over 90% effectiveness in eliminating sting reactions. A board-certified allergist can evaluate your reaction, test you and, if appropriate, place you on venom immunotherapy to prevent future severe reactions.