It’s a fine summer afternoon. You’re kneeling in your garden and pulling weeds, or sitting on a blanket and enjoying a picnic. Suddenly you feel a sharp, heat-filled sting on your leg — and then another and another. You look down and see dozens or even hundreds of red ants swarming over your body. They also called
Without realizing it, you kneeled or set down your blanket on top of a fire ant mound, and now you’re paying a painful price for your intrusion.
“They’re really a miserable ant species,” says Michael Merchant, PhD, a professor of entomology at Texas A&M University in Dallas.
Dr. Merchant says that when he and his wife moved to Texas many years ago, they had a horrific, picnic-spoiling fire ant experience like the one described above. And as the species has spread across much of the southern half of the continental United States, many people have had similar run-ins with fire ants. “In Texas and a lot of the Southwest, they’ve made going outside and sitting on the ground a pleasure of the past,” he says.
It’s thought that fire ants arrived in the United States in the 1930s via cargo ships traveling from South America. And since then, they’ve become an “ecological disaster,” Merchant says. “Wherever they go, they lower biodiversity and attack other ants and animals.”
Unfortunately their prey includes humans. Fire ants are among the very few types of domestic ants that frequently bite people. They also called dangerous ant bites.
But saying that these ants “bite” is actually inaccurate. “Fire ants don’t bite, they deliver a sting via their tail,” Merchant says. “Only the females sting, and their stinger is very sharp and delivers venom.”
Fire ants aren’t a problem in most places that experience freezing temps during winter. But there are other species of ant that live in northern states that do occasionally bite or sting. In some cases, those attacks can be quite serious.
Fire Ant Bites (or Stings) Make Your Skin Feel Like It’s Burning
Merchant says fire ants are well named because their sting causes a hot, fiery sensation on the skin.
How You Know It’s a Fire Ant Bite or Sting
“It starts out as a small, red spot, and, after a day or two, a white pustule forms that’s itchy and a little bit painful,” Merchant says.
It’s possible to experience just a single sting from a lone fire ant. “You may be outside working in a garden or something and get just one on your arm or leg, but commonly people make the mistake of stopping and standing on a mound without realizing it, so they end up covered and they get hundreds of stings.”
A fire ant’s stinger is not barbed, so it can sting a person multiple times. “You may see a row of red marks, and that’s where one ant has grabbed on and stabbed its stinger down in a semicircle,” he says.
Of course, if you’ve picked up multiple fire ants, you’ll know what’s stinging you because you’ll see and feel them on your skin. But if you’re stung just once and don’t see the fire ant, you’ll know it by the fiery sensation and the white pus-filled blister that forms a day or two later.
What to Do About Them and When to Seek Medical Attention
Merchant says that, in most cases, fire ant stings don’t require any medical treatment. They’ll itch for a few days, but they’ll go away within a week to 10 days. “But some people — about one in 100 — will have a more serious reaction,” he says. (And in rare cases it can be lethal if the allergic reaction is not treated immediately.)
Head to the ER if you notice any of the follow symptoms, which indicate an allergic response or other complications:
- Difficulty breathing
- A rapid heart rate
- A swollen throat, arms, or legs
- Dizziness or a sharp drop in blood pressure
Otherwise, wash the stings with soap and water and apply ice to keep the swelling down. You can use OTC pain or anti-itch creams as needed , but don’t apply rubbing alcohol — which can make the sting more painful.
If you notice the sting continuing to swell or grow larger a day or two after you’re stung, that may be a sign of a secondary infection. Fever, muscle aches, or flu-like symptoms can also be cause for concern, and you should call your doctor.