How to avoid inviting EMS to your picnic


Last summer I became one of the one percent.

Trust me, it’s not as impressive as you might imagine. This statistic has nothing to do with yearly income, but everything to do with insect allergies.

Last summer, I developed an allergic reaction to ants. Red imported fire ants, to be precise. One of those critters latched on and stung me as I swam laps; ten minutes later, my body had burst into hives, I’d gone into anaphylactic shock, and I’d nearly fainted.

If a fire ant has ever bitten you—an event so commonplace in Texas that it’s practically expected when you step outside—you know my reaction was not typical.

But allergies aren’t typical. You can get bitten ninety-nine times but develop an allergy on the hundredth. According to my allergist in Austin, I was suddenly severely allergic after years of experiencing nothing more than itching and a small lump when stung.

“Insect allergies aren’t as common as other types of allergies, such as food allergies, asthma, or hay fever,” says Dr. Sheila M. Amar of Allergy & Asthma Center of Georgetown. “But they can be serious and life-threatening.”

The most common insect allergy is to an order of insects called Hymenoptera, says Dr. Amar. “So that’s bees, yellow jackets, hornets, and wasps. In the U.S., [allergies to] yellow jackets are number one; but here in Texas, the most common insect allergy is to imported fire ant venom.”

The good news, for you, is that since few people are affected by insect allergies—about 2 million people in the United States, according to Dr. Amar—it’s unlikely you’ll ever wind up in the hospital after an activity as seemingly benign as a picnic.

But if, like me, normalcy isn’t your specialty, Dr. Amar recommends the following precautions:

Avoid—Be aware of your surroundings. Wear socks, shoes, and gloves when working outside. Steer clear of perfumes and flowery shirts, keep food in closed containers, and don’t drink from open soda cans.

Prepare—If you’re allergic, make sure to carry Benadryl and EpiPens, or adrenaline shots, with which to inject yourself if stung.

Build tolerance—Allergists can prescribe venom immunotherapy treatments, which gradually build tolerance to venom allergies. Dr. Amar suggests seeking an evaluation to determine if immunotherapy is a viable option for you.

And let me add a bonus precaution: Stay far away from Marshall’s annual Fire Ant Festival!

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