Baking Soda and Vinegar for Bee Stings: It Works! But not Really.

Posted on 02 Feb 2012 15:26

You got stung by a bee, put some baking soda and vinegar on it, and ten minutes later the pain was gone! It worked. OR, maybe there is another explanation. Maybe you are not allergic to bee stings, had a minor local reaction, and the pain simply went away on its on. I personally seldom have the pain from a bee sting last longer than 10 or 20 minutes and I forget all about it. Yep.

So you can see why I am not overly impressed when someone claims that such and such made the bee sting boo-boo all better in ten minutes. Ten minutes? So what? I would have been impressed with 20 seconds. Moral, pain often goes away on its own. Even a minor headache, unless the relief from a pill is almost instantaneous, you can never be quite sure that your headache medicine did any good. Heck, it could have been a placebo effect, which wields its power most obviously in the realm of pain.

But let's say someone else told you they tried another remedy for bee stings. Raw onion. They grated up the onion, applied it to the stung area, and applied a bandage. The relief was "immediate" and the swelling went down. You might think, 'wow, that works better than my baking soda and vinegar…which took ten whole minutes'. Well, before you jump to conclusions, you might want to ask what your fried means by "immediate". Maybe his idea of immediate is different than yours. A scientific inquiry would not use such a word without giving it a concrete definition. And then, of course, a whole lot more people would have to get this immediate relief.

Alas, it is not immediate to many people, but it is too others. If you can't abide any physical discomfort far longer than a few seconds without slathering on a salve or popping a pill, nothing short of a nano-second may be mean immediate relief to you. However, if you are more stoic and bravely wait for the pain to resolve on its own, maybe for hours, ten minutes may seem to be more immediate to your way of thinking. So be aware of the language and its meaning. What is your criteria for naming an event which follows another event "immediate?" Is it the same as 'instantaneous'?

The point is that different people feel and deal with pain in different ways. The experience of pain is subjective. So, to actually test these remedies, although it is not likely anyone would, you'd need a lot more than one test subject. You'd need many. And you'd need a control group, that does nothing to treat the bee stings. And you'd need a placebo group. And perhaps a statistician to tie it all up with a nice bow. But, you can't really administer bee stings to people from an ethical standpoint, which is often what gives those who sell anecdotal evidence as real evidence an ace in the hole, as they see it. How do we counter this? Well it's pretty easy. Even without well controlled clinical studies, science still has better information. That is because any study with a decent number of subjects is still better than some dude, his kitchen, and his blog.

Therefore, for instance, consider studies such as this Randomized Controlled Trial of Topical Aspirin in the Treatment of Bee and Wasp Stings. There are lots and lots of things wrong with conducting a study by recruiting people who call a poison information center after being stung by a bee. But hey, it's loads better than NO STUDY AT ALL. The study did garner some interesting results, after all. Topical aspirin didn't work, plus significantly increased the duration of the redness. And the control treatment, traditional ice application, well, that seemed to do the trick fairly quickly. We could probably say that ice has more evidence for being a good choice than baking soda or onion, then.

But wait a minute. Do we really need a 'treatment' for minor bee or wasp sting reactions? I mean, do we need a treatment other than something to dull the discomfort? What all the self-help gurus with their one million home remedies don't get is that so many of the things they have treatments for don't really need to be treated! When it comes to bee and wasp stings, most of them cause minor local reactions, and as I hope I've made abundantly clear, they resolve themselves fairly quickly, regardless if you treat them. A healthy body doesn't need any help to deal with this on its own, providing there is not a severe reaction. So any treatment that you choose, really only needs to be palliative. That is, it helps control the discomfort or pain, if you really need it. A topical analgesic from the drug store will work. And if you think big pharma is evil and a little ointment will kill you, slap some ice on it and it'll numb right up. OR, you could just buck it up and stop being such a cry baby. It could be MUCH worse, you could have suffered a large local reaction or a systemic reaction, requiring emergency medical care.

I don't mean to make a big deal out of baking soda. The above examples are, to me, silly, but not exactly harmful. When it comes to bee stings, as long as you understand how to recognize and deal with a large systemic reaction, messing around with a common local reaction will probably not harm you much, unless you dispense with 'common sense' altogether and put caustic substances on it. Pouring hot sauce on a bee sting would not be a great idea, and yet, I wouldn't be surprised if some self-help medical book touted it.

But what about something that really needs to be dealt with in a decisive way, lest it turn into a bigger problem. What if your kid has head lice? You pick up your handy copy of "Clean It! Fix It! Eat It!" and you are advised to use mayonnaise to get rid of the lice. So now, you have a kid with a greasy head and head lice, and next thing you know, the whole family has it. Now, there is something to mayonnaise, but just rubbing it into your hair will not do anything. The little buggies still need to be removed, which would require several removal sessions.

There is a danger in calling forth the slippery slope argument. Just because you believe one claim about bee sting treatments does not mean you'll believe every other similar claim you read. I know that. But when such thinking represents a pattern, and it normally does, it is quite possible for legitimate medical care could be sidestepped in favor of home brew alternative treatments at the wrong time, putting you or your loved ones in needless danger.

If you came to this page looking for first aid information for bee and wasp stings, please see How to Recognize and What to Do About Allergic Reactions to Bee and Wasp Stings.

This page created 02 Feb 2012 15:26
Last updated 18 Jul 2016 03:38

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