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    A Woman Died After Undergoing Bee Sting Acupuncture. Here's What Experts Think About That.

    Bee sting acupuncture is a type of apitherapy, or bee-related treatment, where nonmedical practitioners use pollen, royal jelly, and yes, sometimes venom, to treat health problems.

    A 55-year-old woman in Madrid died after undergoing acupuncture with live bees — the first known death due to this practice.

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    The woman had been undergoing acupuncture sessions using live bees once a month for about two years without any problems. During such sessions, bees are applied to the skin and allowed to sting patients in an effort to treat health problems — in this case, stress and muscle contractures (which can cause joint pain and stiffness). The woman was in good health and hadn't had any problems during previous sessions.

    After one bee sting, however, she immediately started wheezing and having trouble breathing and lost consciousness. The clinic called an ambulance, but it took 30 minutes to arrive. Although the clinic treated her with a corticosteroid, they didn't have any epinephrine on hand. Epinephrine, sometimes called adrenaline, is the drug found in EpiPens, the auto-injectors that are often used to stop life-threatening allergic reactions.

    Severe allergic reactions, known as anaphylaxis, involve a massive immune response to an allergen, which causes blood pressure to plummet. This happened in the patient's case, who had extremely low blood pressure and was in a coma when the ambulance arrived. Despite treatment, she died a few weeks later after a massive stroke and multi-organ failure.

    Although the case was published in a recent issue of the Journal of Investigational Allergology and Clinical Immunology, the woman's death occurred approximately three years ago, according to the study's lead author, Dr. Ricardo Madrigal-Burgaleta of Homerton University Hospital in London.

    What exactly is bee sting acupuncture?

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    Apitherapy is any treatment that uses a bee product, such as pollen or venom, to treat health problems. There isn't a ton of ironclad scientific evidence that bee venom therapy works, although it has been studied for years as a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, gout, lupus, osteoarthritis, and autoimmune conditions like multiple sclerosis. Bee venom is touted as having anti-inflammatory and healing properties.

    Despite the lack of proof that it works, the treatments have been used by celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and covered on The Dr. Oz Show. The venom itself (either injected or applied to the skin) is sometimes promoted as an "alternative to Botox" (price tag: $150–350).

    "Live bee acupuncture treatment represents a fairly extreme version of apitherapy vs. more mainstream options such as royal jelly or bee pollen over-the-counter products," said Dr. Joshua Davidson, an allergy and immunology physician at HealthCare Partners in Redondo Beach, California. "Any form of apitherapy should be evaluated in advance of use, particularly for patients with a known hymenoptera sensitivity, whether it be to wasp, hornet, bumblebee, or honeybee."

    Bee stings can be fatal, but it's uncommon.

    Daniel Schwen / Via commons.wikimedia.org

    Most of the time, sting-related anaphylaxis and death occur after someone is accidentally stung. About 90–100 people in the US die each year from insect stings, including bees.

    This seems to be the first reported case of a death following bee sting acupuncture, according to the report. In either case, rapid treatment with epinephrine is essential and can often stop dangerous reactions before they become life-threatening.

    "Death is not a common outcome of a bee sting, but bee sting practices are becoming more and more common," said Madrigal-Burgaleta, who conducted the research on the case while at Ramón y Cajal University Hospital in Madrid, in an email. "If you take enough chances without the adequate resources and installations, a tragedy will eventually happen."

    You can become sensitized to an allergen at any time, meaning your body starts to treat a normally harmless protein as a dangerous invader. And repeated exposure can increase the risk of sensitization. So that means that even if you've never had a reaction in the past — like the woman in this case — you can still have one in the future.

    Symptoms of anaphylaxis can include eye, face, and throat swelling; nausea and vomiting; diarrhea; itchy and reddened skin; confusion and slurred speech; difficulty breathing and swallowing; abdominal pain; and unconsciousness.

    "The fear with giving bee venom stings is that a patient can become sensitized from the stings and then after repeated treatments get a severe, anaphylactic reaction," Dr. Dean Mitchell told BuzzFeed News in an email. Mitchell is a clinical assistant professor at the Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York.

    Treatment centers should be equipped to handle a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction.

    Banksphotos / Getty Images / Via gettyimages.com

    People need to be particularly careful with injected treatments or anything that penetrates the skin, but also any treatments taken orally or applied to the skin, said Davidson in an email.

    If you've ever had a reaction to an insect sting in the past, this treatment isn't for you. And even if you haven't, it's "wise to be tested under the guidance of an allergy and immunology specialist prior to initiation," Davidson said. "Patients should be made aware of potential complications of treatment." And it's not a bad idea to consider getting your own prescription epinephrine auto-injector, said Davidson.

    Clinics should also be prepared for emergencies, the experts said. "The practitioner doing this therapy should absolutely have had epinephrine in the office — as studies show, time is of the essence in treating anaphylaxis," said Mitchell.

    And it's probably best to talk to your doctor first, and skip it entirely if you feel the benefits don't outweigh the risks, the study's author said.

    "If a therapeutic option promises to cure many diseases but offers no evidence for it and asks for money... be extremely careful with your decision, especially if it involves serious risks," said Madrigal-Burgaleta. "And if you, for whatever the reason, want to try that option, ask for expert personnel who has been formally trained to identify and treat allergic reactions, and the appropriate resources to treat them."

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