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Red Alert for Yellow Jackets

Pesky insects pose major stinging threat this time of year

SATURDAY, Sept. 8, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- While it's too soon to worry about Jack Frost nipping your nose, you should be aware there's a buzz of danger in the air this time of year: yellow jackets.

Their populations peak in late summer and early fall, and they develop a taste for the same things you like to serve at your outdoor gatherings.

Squadrons of these insect hooligans launch bold air raids on picnics and barbecues. They slurp your drinks, often climbing right into your can or glass, and eat most any kind of food you put on the table. They even pick through your garbage.

The worst of it is that they'll sting you if you object too vigorously to their boorish behavior.

At the least, a yellow jacket sting is a painful nuisance. But it can be life threatening if you're allergic to their venom.

The key is to try to avoid conflicts with yellow jackets and reduce the threat of anyone being stung, says Robert Jeanne, professor of entomology and zoology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Various species of yellow jackets live in North America, and by this time of year some individual colonies have 4,000 to 5,000 adults, he says.

That's one reason for increased yellow jacket stings in late summer and fall. Another is that their food preferences change. In early summer, they kill and eat other insects and don't bother much with human food. But by late August, they become more dependent on scavenging, which leads them to garbage cans and your table, Jeanne says.

If you're cooking and eating outside, keep it clean of garbage. All your food and beverage containers should be covered until you're ready to serve. Check open soda containers before you take a drink. Yellow jackets often crawl inside. Keep lids on garbage cans.

You also may be at risk mowing your lawn or doing other yard work, Jeanne says. Many yellow jacket nests are in the ground, and they'll attack you if you run your mower over their nest. Nests also may be built in hollow trees, attics, porches or sheds.

Even just breathing too close to a nest can aggravate yellow jackets.

"The combination of gases and water vapor in your breath will rile them the same as hitting the nest with a stick," Jeanne says.

"We are all susceptible this time of year," agrees Dr. Chester T. Stafford, professor emeritus at the Medical College of Georgia and co-chairman of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology's insect hypersensitivity committee.

Along with the precautions mentioned above, Stafford suggests you avoid wearing brightly colored or floral print clothing, which attracts yellow jackets.

It's not just the yellow jacket sting that's dangerous. People are killed or injured in traffic accidents when they're distracted from driving while trying to slap at yellow jackets or other insects. Stafford says you should pull to the side of the road and stop your car before you deal with any insect invaders.

If you are stung by a yellow jacket, he recommends putting ice on the site immediately to relieve the swelling.

"They also need to scrub the wound thoroughly with soap and water to avoid secondary infection, which is especially common with yellow jackets because of their nasty feeding habits," Stafford says. "Feeding around garbage pails, they're likely to introduce bacteria and other germs into the wound."

Anyone with a potentially life-threatening allergy to insect stings should always carry a kit containing epinephrine, which can be administered immediately after a sting, experts say. The kits are available by prescription.

Also, Stafford says, people with an insect-sting allergy should consider venom immunotherapy.

"The best treatment is to reprogram the immune system to not have such a tremendous systemic response to subsequent stings," he says.

In this treatment, an allergist administers shots with increasing quantities of sting venom. The process can take months, or even years, but it's 95 percent effective, Stafford says.

What To Do

More than 2 million Americans are allergic to insect stings, and between 40 and 150 people die each year as a result of a sting-related allergic reaction, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. More than 50,000 Americans suffering from insect stings go to emergency rooms every year.

To learn more about yellow jackets, check out information from the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service. For information on other stinging insects, visit the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology online.

SOURCES: Interviews with Robert Jeanne, Ph.D., professor of entomology and zoology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisc.; and Chester T. Stafford, M.D., professor emeritus, Medical College of Georgia, Augusta, Ga.
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