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treating fire ant bites
Health

How to Treat Fire Ant Bites

Even mild reactions to fire ant bites are extraordinarily painful, and major reactions can be deadly. The name fire ant describes the burning pain caused by their bite and sting, and swarms of this insect kill around 30 people in the United States each year.

They will absolutely ruin your picnic.

Introducing the Fire Ant Family

Several species of red stinging ants in the genus Solenopsis are referred to as fire ants. These ants nest in landscaping or near structural foundations, resulting in large mounds of soil with no visible entrances. The ant colonies under the mounds consist of one or more queens, some flying male ants, and thousands of workers.

treating fire ant bites

Fire ants have broad and opportunistic eating patterns, ready to chow down on anything from grass seed to baby birds and rodents. They are particularly attracted to carrion and will consume it eagerly if given the opportunity. Fire ants do bite, but the venom that causes the painful itching welts to form is actually in their sting.

This venom is not only harmful in its own right, but it is also cross-reactive with the venom of other ants as well as the venom of wasp and bee stings. Therefore, if you are allergic to bees, you may also be allergic to fire ant venom and vice versa.

Imported Fire Ants

While most native fire ant species avoid human interaction, the ants imported to the United States are often more aggressive. Due to their resilience and hostile natures, both Red and Black Imported Fire Ants are invasive species in the United States. Invasive fire ant colonies cause billions of dollars worth of damage each year, pose a threat to both livestock and wildlife, and interfere with crops.

  • Red Imported Fire Ants (Solenopsis invicta)This is an aggressive species of fire ant introduced to the United States in the 1930s. RIFA’s were unintentionally transported by barge from South America to a seaport in Mobile, AL. Once introduced to the United States, these hardy, active ants flourished. As of 2011, Red Imported Fire Ants had expanded their territories to include most of the southern United States.
  • Black Imported Fire Ants (Solenopsis richteri)—This species, though closely related to Solenopsis invicta, has a few notable differences. BIFAs are slightly larger than RIFAs, have darker coloration, and inhabit a smaller portion of the United States. Restricted to a few areas in Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, and Mississippi, they do not pose as large of a threat as their red relatives.

Red imported fire ants

Native Fire Ants

Fire ants native to the United States are similar in both appearance and behavior to fire ants that were imported. Native ant species are less aggressive than their imported cousins, however, and their sting is typically less painful.

  • Southern Fire Ants (Solenopsis xyloni)—Also known as Cotton ants, this species can range in color from orangish-red to a brownish-black color and are particularly damaging to citrus trees. Southern fire ants are widespread throughout the southern states from Texas to Florida as well as in California and Hawaii.
  • Tropical Fire Ants (Solenopsis geminata)—Tropical fire ants are reddish-orange ants with large, square heads. Unlike most fire ants, Tropical fire ants prefer open spaces and warm climates. Their nests do not always have the traditional mound of soil, instead they look more like an irregular sandy crater. They occasionally nest in rotten stumps as well.
  • Desert Fire Ants (Solenopsis aurea and Solenopsis amblychila)—These two species are almost identical in both appearance and behavior. Both are yellowish red and able to withstand very dry conditions but have a fondness for well-watered lawns.

The Anatomy of a Bite

When a fire ant nest is disturbed, it compels the ants inside to protect their territory. They do this by running up in vast groups and clamping down on the intruder’s skin with their powerful mandibles. These aggressive insects then repeatedly sting their victims to inject as much venom as possible. In most cases, an intense burning sensation develops at the site of the sting, along with redness, itching, and swelling. Within 6 to 24 hours, the painful red bumps transform into pus-filled blisters, which can remain painfully inflamed for up to ten days and are prone to infection.

Red Ant Bite

Some people may develop dangerous allergies to fire ant venom, and severe reactions could be fatal. Victims who are having a dangerous allergic reaction may exhibit signs that include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Hoarse voice

Treating Minor Reactions

The first course of action is to remove the ants from your body. Be sure to use gloves or a piece of cloth of some sort to prevent your attackers from latching on to your hand instead. The itching, unsightly pustules aren’t necessarily dangerous on their own, but they are typically painful and itchy. The following actions can help reduce the swelling and itching associated with fire ant bites:

  • Apply a topical steroid
  • Apply cold compresses directly to the area
  • Gently wash the area with soap and water
  • Soak in an oatmeal bath
  • Use an oral or topical antihistamine

Despite the intense itching caused by the fire ant sting, it’s crucial not to scratch the pustules. Scratching and breaking open these fluid-filled bumps can lead to dangerous bacterial infections, causing even more misery.

Treating Major Reactions

Major allergic reactions occur in a large number of individuals that are bitten by fire ants. While uncomfortable and unpleasant, most of these reactions will be confined to the skin. Doctors often prescribe topical steroids to help treat allergic reactions to fire ant bites, usually in conjunction with an over-the-counter antihistamine like Benadryl. If you have had a reaction to fire ant, bee, or wasp stings in the past, your physician may prescribe an epinephrine injector in case of anaphylactic shock.

A small number of these reactions will be exceptionally severe. These result in a whole-body reaction that requires medical assistance. Individuals bitten or stung by fire ants that develop any of the critical allergic reactions listed above should take immediate action. If you have an emergency epinephrine injector, use it to stop the initial reaction, then contact emergency medical services right away. Although epinephrine helps stop reactions in their tracks, the effect is sometimes temporary. Without further medical intervention, the dangerous symptoms of the venom may reoccur.

An Ounce of Prevention

The best way to avoid having a major allergic reaction is to avoid getting bitten in the first place. If you live in an area with fire ants, always be aware of your surroundings, especially outdoors or around food, and use sensible precautions.

  • Don’t park baby strollers, grocery carts, or wheelchairs close to mounds in the ground or in areas where substantial ant activity has been observed.
  • Don’t stand on or near mounds of dirt.
  • Tuck your pants into your boot or shoe.
  • Wear socks.

If you are bitten and have a reaction, contact your doctor as soon as possible. They will be able to help you determine if you need to take further action to mitigate the damage caused by the stinging ant’s toxic venom.

1 Fire Ant Bite Treatment Sting Zapper Gel Cream, $14.99

1 Fire Ant Bite Treatment Sting Zapper Gel Cream This Instant Relief Medicated Maximum Sting Zapper™ is for the relief of pain and itch caused by bites and stings.

Sting-Kill First Aid Anesthetic Swabs, $7.94

Sting-Kill First Aid Anesthetic SwabsSting-Kill’s unique formula provides instant relief from pain and itch from bugs.

Bite Away Electronic Insect Sting and Bite Relief, $39.99

Bite Away Electronic Insect Sting and Bite ReliefThe bite away® is an electronic device for chemical-free external treatment for insect bites/stings such as mosquitoes, wasps and bees.

Nature’s Willow Bug Bite Balm, $6

Nature’s Willow Bug Bite BalmWhite willow bark, an ancient pain reliever, and helichrysum, an essential oil with anti-inflammatory properties, come together to provide fast relief from insect bites and minor skin irritations.

Stingose Gel, $19.89

Stingose GelStingose contains the active ingredient aluminium sulphate, which helps to minimise the pain, inflammation and itch associated with the stings and bites of most insects and plants.

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