Everything You Need to Know About Ant Bites (And How to Avoid Them)
Without realizing it, you kneeled or set down your blanket on top of a fire ant mound, and now youâ€™re paying a painful price for your intrusion.
Insect Bites Matter When You Have RA
â€œTheyâ€™re really a miserable ant species,â€ 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. (1) â€œIn Texas and a lot of the Southwest, theyâ€™ve made going outside and sitting on the ground a pleasure of the past,â€ he says.
Itâ€™s thought that fire ants arrived in the United States in the 1930s via cargo ships traveling from South America. (2) And since then, theyâ€™ve become an â€œecological disaster,â€ Merchant says. â€œWherever they go, they lower biodiversity and attack other ants and animals.â€
Unfortunately their prey includes humans. Fire ants are among the very few types of domestic ants that frequently bite people.
But saying that these ants â€œbiteâ€ is actually inaccurate. â€œFire ants donâ€™t bite, they deliver a sting via their tail,â€ Merchant says. â€œOnly the females sting, and their stinger is very sharp and delivers venom.â€
Fire ants arenâ€™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 Itâ€™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
â€œIt starts out as a small, red spot, and, after a day or two, a white pustule forms thatâ€™s itchy and a little bit painful,â€ Merchant says.
Itâ€™s possible to experience just a single sting from a lone fire ant. â€œYou 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.â€
A fire antâ€™s stinger is not barbed, so it can sting a person multiple times. â€œYou may see a row of red marks, and thatâ€™s where one ant has grabbed on and stabbed its stinger down in a semicircle,â€ he says.
Of course, if youâ€™ve picked up multiple fire ants, youâ€™ll know whatâ€™s stinging you because youâ€™ll see and feel them on your skin. But if youâ€™re stung just once and donâ€™t see the fire ant, youâ€™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 donâ€™t require any medical treatment. Theyâ€™ll itch for a few days, but theyâ€™ll go away within a week to 10 days. â€œBut some people â€” about one in 100 â€” will have a more serious reaction,â€ he says. (And in rare cases it can be lethal if the allergic reaction is not treated immediately.) (3)
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 (4,5)
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 (6), but donâ€™t apply rubbing alcohol â€” which can make the sting more painful.
If you notice the sting continuing to swell or grow larger a day or two after youâ€™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.
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Hereâ€™s how to identify 11 common bug bites and stings.
Red Ants Can Bite and Sting, too â€” But They Donâ€™t Tend to Do So Very Often
A few other types of domestic ants â€” namely red harvester and carpenter ants, but also some less common types â€” are also capable of either stinging or â€œbiting.â€ But, compared with fire ant stings, attacks from these ants are relatively rare, Merchant says.
Red Harvester Ant Stings
Harvester ants are less common today than they once were. They tend to live mostly in the Southwest and Texas. But because of their large size â€” usually one-quarter to one-half inch in length â€” theyâ€™re still a popular choice for ant farms. (7) Like fire ants, they sting rather than bite. But unlike fire ants, theyâ€™re reluctant to attack.
A red harvester antâ€™s sting often feels and looks like a bee sting. A painful, swollen, red welt may form, which may itch after a few days and could take a week or more to go away.
Carpenter Ant Bites
Carpenter ants donâ€™t sting â€” they bite. But when confronted by people, they tend to try to escape â€” not to swarm and attack. (8) If they do bite, the result and possible complications are similar to the stings of harvester ants. That is, the victim may experience a stab of pain and a red welt. (9)
How to Avoid Getting Ant Bites or Stings
Merchant says fire ants like to build their nests in open, sunny areas away from vegetation. The same is true of harvester ants. The best way to avoid bites is to keep your eyes on the ground and avoid sitting down, squatting, or standing on their moundlike nests (ant hills), he says.
Carpenter ants, on the other hand, show up inside homes and other wooden structures. They tend to bite only if handled or touched â€” for instance, if a person tries to squash them or swipe them away. Use sprays or other forms of pest control if you stumble onto these wood-loving ants, and you shouldnâ€™t have to worry much about being bitten.
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