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Fire ants can turn a blissful afternoon outside into an itchy, burning stream of misery. An attack from a fire ant typically causes instant, intense pain. The pain quickly gives way to itching and skin irritation that lasts from a few hours to a few days.

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 who are allergic to the venom of fire ants. A single sting can produce symptoms of anaphylaxis in just a few minutes.

Read on to learn more about fire ants, what to look out for, and when to get medical treatment.

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The term fire ant refers to several species of stinging ants. Two imported species that cause problems in the United States are:

Solenopsis invicta

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, driveways, and other areas with ready access to food. They eat 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 bigger animals quickly, such as box turtles.

Solenopsis richteri

Also a native of South America, Solenopsis richteri is commonly known as the black imported fire ant. Black fire ants are only found in 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, stinging 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 stung 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 its mound.

In most people, stings produce minor skin irritation.

However, an older study of fire ant venom identifies at least 46 proteins and suggests the venom contains poison that affects the nervous system. This may explain why some fire ant sting victims report hallucinations and similar symptoms, particularly after 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 seconds to a few minutes.

Next comes itching or burning that may be mild or intense. The 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 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 stung.

The following symptoms need emergency medical help:

If left untreated, these allergic reactions can cause the body to go into shock.

Most people do not need medical treatment for fire ant stings. If breathing is regular and the sting victim is not known to have a serious ant sting allergy, the following home remedies may 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 sting to help prevent infection in stings 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.

Many of these treatments are available for purchase over the counter or online, including hydrocortisone cream, antihistamine, and triple antibiotic ointment.

Breathing difficulties, changes in consciousness, and severe swelling 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. A person can use these home devices to inject epinephrine immediately after a sting. They can be lifesaving 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 do not 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 symptoms, a doctor may recommend hydrocortisone cream or hydrocortisone injections. Infected stings may require antibiotics.

The following steps can help prevent fire ant stings and reduce their severity:

  • moving out of an area immediately if stung by a fire ant or fire ants are found on the body
  • wearing protective clothing, such as 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. Disturbing 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, which can place owners at risk from attacks.

Parents and caregivers should talk with 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 fire ants attack a pet, it should be moved away from the ants as soon as possible.

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.

The term “fire ants” refers to several species of stinging ants. Red fire ants and black fire ants are found in some areas of the U.S.

The sting from fire ants can produce intense pain and itching. Some people may have allergies to fire ant venom and may need emergency treatment, as a single sting can produce symptoms of anaphylaxis in just a few minutes.

People should avoid fire ant mounds, even when wearing protective clothing. If fire ants are in a person’s home, they should seek help from a pest management company to remove them.