Fire ant stings: What you should know this summer
Just about everyone in South Carolina has seen the large anthills that belong to fire ant colonies or experienced the painful sting of a fire ant. However, fire ants aren’t native to South Carolina at all. They are an invasive species that originally came from South America and were first seen in South Carolina in the 1960s. They have been a menace to dogs, outdoor cats, children and adults ever since.
Emergency medicine physician Nathaniel Mann, MD, explained what you need to know about fire ant stings, how they’re treated and how to know if you need medical attention after a sting.
How are fire ants different than regular ants?
“For most people, the most visible difference between fire ants and regular local ants is in color,” said Dr. Mann. “Fire ants tend to be reddish-brown, where our other two main types of ant – the carpenter and pavement ant species – are both black. Fire ants also tend to be fairly small but live in large colonies.”
The other recognizable difference is in their large anthills, with mounds that can rise more than a foot above the ground in some cases.
What does a fire ant sting feel like?
“The feeling of their sting, or ‘bite,’ is where the name ‘fire ant’ comes from,” said Dr. Mann. “Fire ants have a small stinger on their back end. They will grasp a person’s skin with their jaws and then use that small stinger, potentially several times.”
People stung by fire ants describe the pain as a burning sensation that can be mild or severe and leaves a small, red, painful bump that generally transitions into a small white pustule or blister over the next several days. This spot will harden and eventually fade, but scarring or infection can occur if wounds are continually scratched or opened.
How long does it take a fire ant sting to heal?
In most cases, fire ant stings will heal within a week if treated and otherwise left alone. If the bites are scratched or opened, however, healing can take a little longer and may require further treatment.
How do you treat fire ant stings?
“At-home treatment is usually all that is needed for fire ant stings. You’ll often see lots of home remedies recommended online. Unfortunately, very few of them are at all effective,” said Dr. Mann.
For the best result and fastest recovery, gently wash the places where you were stung and apply a topical over-the-counter antihistamine medication like hydrocortisone or diphenhydramine cream. Afterward, cool compresses can be used to lessen the inflammation, as well as over-the-counter anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen or naproxen.
Avoid touching the bites or scratching them, as this can prolong healing time.
Do you need to visit a doctor if you are stung by fire ants?
“For the most part, people who’ve been stung by a fire ant won’t need to see a doctor afterward,” said Dr. Mann.
In some cases, though, people who have a more severe reaction may need prescription steroids to fully manage their symptoms, or an antibiotic if the wounds become infected. Rarely, a person stung by a fire ant may have an anaphylactic reaction to fire ant stings and need treatment with epinephrine or other medications to help calm the allergic symptoms.
If you are uncertain whether you need direct medical treatment, seek medical advice.
Are fire ant stings more dangerous for children?
Because of their smaller size and lesser mobility, very small children are less capable of escaping from fire ants and may receive more stings than an older child or adult. They may also receive a higher amount of venom compared to body weight, which does make them have a greater risk of a severe reaction.
Small children may also be less aware of their surroundings or not realize that a fire ant mound is dangerous and should always be supervised while out in the yard or in a park for safety reasons.
How can I avoid being stung by fire ants?
“The simple truth is that the best way to avoid fire ant stings is just to avoid fire ants themselves,” said Dr. Mann.
Luckily, fire ant nests are usually recognizable, as they tend to be distinctively tall mounds. South Carolina’s tendency toward red clay soil makes them even easier to spot. Fire ants love warm spaces, and you’ll see their mounds most often in sunny, grassy areas like backyards, parks, ball fields, alongside roads and sidewalks, or on golf courses. You might even see mounds built within or atop tree stumps or logs.
Give fire ant mounds a wide berth and try not to interact directly with them at all.
Many pest control companies provide fire ant services to help eliminate ant colonies around the home, and at-home treatments are also available at home improvement stores.
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