Although it looks as though fire ants bite when they attack, the correct term to use is sting. As a result, we will use the word sting instead of bite in this article.
For most people, fire ant stings are little more than an inconvenience. However, some stings can produce intense pain and itching.
Stings can be life-threatening for people allergic to the venom of fire ants. A single sting can produce symptoms of anaphylaxis in just a few minutes.
What are fire ants?
The term fire ant refers to several species of stinging ants. Two imported species that cause problems in the United States are:
There are two types of fire ant: Solenopsis invicta and Solenopsis richteri.
Image credit: Wing-Chi Poon
A native of South America, Solenopsis invicta has colonized at least 13 states in the U.S. These are mostly in the southeast. Less than half an inch long and red to brown in color, the species is commonly known as the red imported fire ant.
Red fire ants build mounds around 18 inches wide. These mounds are often found in grass or lawns, garden beds, along driveways, and in other areas with ready access to food. They eat both animals and a wide array of fruits and vegetables.
These ants use their venom to stun their prey, allowing large groups of fire ants to overcome much larger animals quickly, such as box turtles.
Also a native of South America, Solenopsis richteri is commonly known as the black imported fire ant. Black fire ants have only traveled to a few states in the Gulf Coast and southeast, including Texas, Mississippi, and Alabama.
Black fire ants also build mounds. Theirs tend to be much larger than red fire ant mounds, often measuring several feet tall. These ants are almost identical to their red cousins in size and shape but are black or dark brown rather than reddish brown.
Both species aggressively defend their mounds, biting intruders in large groups. Stings are common among gardeners, playing children, and pets. Ants typically continue attacking until their victims leave the mound. Most people are bitten on their legs and feet after stepping on a mound.
Unlike many other species of stinging and biting insects, ants can sting multiple times. A single worker ant will sting multiple times while attempting to defend their mound.
Symptoms of fire ant stings
Fire ant venom is a cocktail of at least 46 proteins. In most people, stings produce only minor skin irritation.
Fire ants may look like pimples. Unlike other insect stings, their wounds are pus-filled blisters.
However, recent testing of fire ant venom suggests that the venom contains poison that affects the nervous system. This may explain why some fire ant sting victims report hallucinations and other similar symptoms, particularly after getting a large number of stings.
A fire ant sting often begins with an intense pinching or burning pain immediately after the sting. This pain is short-lived, lasting anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes. Next comes itching or burning that may be mild or intense. Itching tends to get stronger over the next few days. Most stings heal on their own without treatment.
Fire ant stings produce a mark that sets them apart from other insect stings. The wounds are pus-filled blisters that are round and may look like pimples.
As fire ants tend to attack their victims in groups, the stings often come in clusters. Blisters appear quickly, usually within 20 minutes of a fire ant attack.
Allergic reactions to fire ant stings
The blisters that develop after fire ant stings are allergic reactions, but some people develop more severe reactions. The areas immediately surrounding the sting may swell, burn, or itch.
Anaphylaxis is less common, but can be life-threatening. People with severe allergies to fire ant venom typically develop symptoms within a few minutes after being bitten.
The following symptoms need emergency medical help:
- Trouble with breathing
- Swelling of the tongue or throat
- Loss of consciousness
If left untreated, these allergic reactions can cause the body to go into shock.
Home remedies for fire ant stings
Most people don't need medical treatment for fire ant stings. If breathing is normal and the sting victim is not known to have a serious ant sting allergy, the following home remedies can be effective:
- Applying cold compresses to reduce swelling - 20 minutes on, 20 minutes off
- Using a hydrocortisone cream on the skin to relieve itching.
- Taking an antihistamine to manage minor, localized allergic reactions and itching
- Applying a triple antibiotic ointment to the stings can help prevent infection in stings that have been opened by scratching
- Taking an oatmeal bath to reduce itching
It is important to resist the urge to scratch the stings. Scratching can open the blisters and cause infection.
Medical remedies for fire ant stings
Breathing difficulties, changes in consciousness, severe swelling, and similar symptoms within an hour of the sting require emergency medical care. Emergency treatment with epinephrine can reverse the reaction.
After an anaphylactic reaction to fire ants, some doctors recommend carrying an EpiPen. These home devices inject epinephrine immediately after a sting. They can be life-saving in the event of another allergic reaction, or when a reaction occurs in an area where medical help is not close by.
If the symptoms of a fire ant sting don't go away after a few days, medical treatment may be necessary. This is also the case if there is swelling, intense pain, or spreading redness on the skin. Depending on the cause of the symptoms, a doctor may recommend hydrocortisone cream or hydrocortisone injections. Infected stings may require antibiotics.
Fire ant sting prevention
Attacking a fire ant mound is likely to provoke an attack from the ants within.
The following steps can help prevent fire ant stings and reduce their severity:
- Moving out of an area immediately if bitten by a fire ant or fire ants are found on the body
- Wearing protective clothing like thick socks and boots while working outdoors
- Avoiding work in or around fire ant mounds
- Using insect repellents designed to deter fire ants. A range of products is available for purchase online.
People should not stomp on fire ant mounds, even when wearing protective clothing. Attacking mounds in this way can provoke an attack.
It is also important to check for fire ants indoors. Fire ants sometimes move inside to escape extreme weather conditions. If fire ants are indoors, homeowners should consider seeking help from a pest management company.
Fire ants, children, and pets
Children and pets are more at risk from fire ant stings since they are unaware of the dangers of fire ant mounds. Pets may also bring fire ants inside on their fur after a fire ant attack, making owners at risk from attacks.
Parents should talk to children about the dangers of fire ants and show them what fire ant mounds look like. They should teach children to brush off fire ants as soon as they find them crawling on their skin.
Removing visible fire ant mounds and gating off areas where fire ants live can help protect pets. If a pet is attacked by fire ants, it should be moved away from the ants.
Ants should be removed by hand. Spraying the ants with water may cause them to latch on with their jaws. This can be frightening to a pet experiencing an attack.