Fire Ant Stings

Excerpts from Steve Tvedten's book "The Best Control (2nd Edition)"
(Used here with permission.)

[Something Nice About Fire Ants?]
[General Overview] * [Colony and Life Cycle] * [Feeding Habits]
[Stings] * [Monitoring] * [Alternative Controls] * [Mound Treatment] * [Notes] * [Control Summary]
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About 5 million Americans are stung every year!

Fire Ant Stings - At least 5 million Americans are stung every year! The CPCO ADVANTAGE - January 1999 noted: A survey conducted in just South Carolina revealed that in the single year 1990, physicians reported treating 5000 cases of imported fire ant stings on humans. This represented a 14-fold morbidity. In all, there were 27 hospitalizations, one death and 170 cases requiring imported fire ant desensitization by an allergy specialist. An updated imported fire ant sting survey is about to get underway. - Agromedicine Program Update; September 16, 1998

The fire ants are small (less than a quarter of an inch long), reddish-brown to black and live in mounds with long, radiating underground tunnels. Children can mistake the fire ant mounds for sand piles and be attacked. Older people may also be attacked.

The fire ant’s attack is a two-part process consisting of a bite and a sting. When one ant stings, they all sting and inject a venom that causes the release of histamine, a chemical in our bodies that can produce pain, itching, swelling and redness of the skin. Within seconds after the stings, discomfort occurs at each site and a small red welt appears. Each welt can enlarge rapidly, depending on the amount of venom that was injected and the victim’s sensitivity to the venom. The reaction persists for up to an hour, and then a small, clear blister will form. Over the next half day or so, the fluid in the blister may turn cloudy, and the area will begin to itch. Most people experience only a small amount of redness around the sting site. A small percentage of people are sensitive to the venom and experience more extensive redness and swelling. A few victims have extensive allergic reactions such as breathing difficulties or widespread swelling of body parts or worse.

The fire ant’s venom is an oily alkaloid mixed with a little protein, and your one chance to lessen the effect of the bite is to quickly break down the protein. Try dabbing the bite with diluted bleach or Kleen ‘Em Away Naturally® or Safe Solutions, Inc. Enzyme Cleaners, or covering it with a paste of meat tenderizer and water. This method is not effective if more than 15 minutes have passed. Another option is to treat stings with an insect bite remedy containing benzocaine or other ingredients that deaden pain and protect against infection.

In infested areas, fire ant stings occur more frequently than bee, wasp, hornet, and yellowjacket stings. Stepping on a fire ant mound is almost unavoidable, especially when walking in heavily infested areas. Furthermore, many mounds are not easily seen, with many lateral tunnels extending several feet away from the mound just beneath the soil surface. Ants defend these tunnels as part of their mound. More than 25,000 people each year seek medical attention for painful fire ant bites. The sting itself is usually not life-threatening, but secondary infections can result. To prevent infections do not scratch pustules and treat the sting with an insect bite remedy. Persons who are hypersensitive to the fire ant venom may experience symptoms such as nausea and dizziness or even shock or death. Individuals exhibiting such reactions to fire ant stings should see a physician immediately. About 1 dozen Americans die of their wounds each year!

A person who stops to stand on a mound or one of its tunnels, or who leans against a fence post included in the defended area, can have hundreds of ants rush out to attack. Typically, the ants can be swarming on a person for 10 or more seconds before they grab the skin with their mandibles, double over their abdomens, and inject their stingers. That is why some people die! This does not happen in their native land where the fire ants fear phorid fly species who only live to torture and kill fire ants. Phorid flies are being currently evaluated in Gainesville, Florida.

Although a single fire ant sting normally hurts less than a bee or wasp sting, the effect of multiple stings is impressive. Multiple stings are common, not only because hundreds of ants may have attacked, but because individual ants can administer several stings. Each sting usually results in the formation of a white pustule within 6 to 24 hours. The majority of stings are uncomplicated, but secondary infections may occur if the pustule is broken, and scars may last for several months. Severe infections requiring skin grafting or amputation have been known to occur from fire ant stings. DMSO has been used to stop pustules and itching.

Some people experience a generalized allergic reaction to a fire ant sting. The reaction can include sweating, slurred speech, chest pain, shortness of breath, hives, swelling, nausea, vomiting, and/or shock. People exhibiting these symptoms after being stung by fire ants should get medical attention immediately. Death can occur in hypersensitive or older or very young people. Individuals who are allergic to fire ant toxins may require desensitization therapy. The March 2002 issue of Pest Control Magazine noted that in 1998 an estimated 660,000 people were stung in South Carolina alone and approximately 33,000 sought medical treatment costing an estimated $2.4 million. First Aid: Try applying a mix of 4 oz. per quart of Kleen ‘Em Away Naturally® or 1 oz. of Safe Solutions, Inc. enzyme cleaners per quart of water or a 1 to 1 mix of bleach and water to the stung area. Try to avoid stings by lightly dusting your shoes, socks, feet and legs with talcum powder.

Fear of Fire Ants

An important indirect effect of the presence of fire ants is just the fear of being stung. Fear and anxiety about fire ants may limit the use of sites where fire ants are present. In some parks, playgrounds, athletic fields, and campsites are not used simply because of fear of the fire ants in the area.