How to Treat Fire Ant Bites

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6 Home Remedies for Fire Ant Bites

6 Home Remedies for Fire Ant Bites | The Survival Doctor

If you disturb fire ants, they don’t mess around. They attack. Technically they bite and sting. When they bite, they clamp to your skin with their two strong pincers. Because of this it takes a lot of vigorous brushing to get them off. After biting, they sting by swinging their tail to and fro. One biting fire ant can sting you six to eight times.

by James Hubbard, MD, MPH

Having grown up in the South, I’ve been bitten enough times by fire ants to pretty well know what’s going on before I see them. I know when I feel that distinctive sting (it’s like being touched with a hot match head … for a long time), I’m going to find a lot of creepy, crawling dots.

Because fire ants don’t come as singles. They quickly cover a foot, leg, or arm before you know what’s happening. And the little devils don’t leave easily. You have to brush and brush and often take off some apparel to make sure they’re not clinging to that. And I know they’re going to leave a sore, itching spot I’m going to have to deal with for days.

Although potentially killer allergic reactions occur, just as they do in bee and wasp stings, I’ve never seen one. But I have seen people with so many stings they literally get sick, and if it’s an arm or leg, there can be lots of local swelling.

We who’ve been bitten all have our little tricks on how to treat fire ant bites, so let’s dig right in.

How to Treat Fire Ant Bites (and Stings)

Home Remedies

  • How to Treat Fire Ant Bites | The Survival DoctorIce pack (with a cloth between the skin and pack) or a cool, wet cloth—or anything cool. Apply for 10-minute intervals with a break in between.
  • Paste of baking soda and water
  • Vinegar
  • Paste of baking soda and vinegar
  • Meat tenderizer
  • Wet tobacco (hopefully you don’t have any, but if you do, put it to some good use)

Oral Medicines

  • Antihistamine, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) or one of the nonsedating ones.

Injections

  • Epinephrine. Fire ants can cause the same type of life-threatening allergic reaction as wasps and bees. (See the next section on anaphylactic shock.) And there’s nothing that works as well for life-threatening reactions as injectable epinephrine. It comes in an easy-to-use, pen-like container with a retractable needle called an EpiPen. You can inject yourself or someone else. There’s also a smaller-dosage container you can get for small kids. Read the instructions beforehand, and use immediately if there’s a severe allergic reaction. Everyone should have one of these at home and one in a backpack or bug-out bag because when you need it, you need it immediately. But you’re going to have to ask your doctor for a prescription.
Anaphylactic Warning Signs
6 Home Remedies for Fire Ant Bites | The Survival Doctor

You’ll find fire ants, of course, in their nests (large mounds of dirt) but also on trees, feeding on dead things, and even on top of water.

They’re the same as in any severe allergic reaction—tightness in the chest, trouble breathing, severe nausea, or a breakout of welts over the body (including areas that have not been stung).

If you have these, call 911 or get to a doctor ASAP. If you can’t, the same suggestions apply as for any anaphylactic reaction. (See my post on bee stings for more details.)

 

Now don’t think these ants are satisfied with what they’ve got. These biting invaders first came to the U.S. in 1939 on a South American ship anchored in Mobile, AL. They quickly spread throughout the Southeast, into the Southwest and California, and along the Atlantic Coast. And now they’re moving northward, wiping out other ant types as they go.

What about you? Have you ever made a fire ant mad? How did the sting feel? What did you do?

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Photos: Fire ants: Flickr/KM&G-Morris. Bites: Flickr/JeffKalikstein. Mound: Flickr/Vicki’s Nature.

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  • Deaun McNeely

    My husband and I went to bed on Friday night at just past 11:00; Saturday morning at 8:00 I walked into the dining room and there were hundreds of ants scaling a wall. Just around the corner was a 3″ mound (inside the front entrance). I had no idea what kind of ants they were and bent over to lift the carpet away from the baseboard–and was swarmed on both hands and arms. Exterminator came quickly and killed all the little buggers inside our house and out in the yard, but I am covered in bites/stings, blisters, and feel very sick. Came on here to find a solution for the itch/pain; does anyone have something for sick feeling? I need to be able to work tomorrow.

  • Debbie

    Is it normal to still have the bites weeks later? They still itch on occasion also.

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      They should have gone away within a week or two, and no new ones occurring.

  • Noneya Biness

    I live in Florida and we just had a day of hard rain that washed away all the fire ant mounds so it was hard to tell where they were. I was outside with my two kids and my one year old apparently stood right where a mound was, with all the ants swarming around on the ground trying to repair their mound. Before I knew what was happening he had several hundred bites! The thing about fire ants is they wait until their fellow ants are all over you before the first one bites, then they all start biting at once. But several hundred bites, that I the most I’ve ever seen! I had to strip his clothes off right there to get the little bastards off him ASAP. A few even got into his diaper! He did not get sick though and barely any swelling at all. He’s not even itching them much. He acts like nothing happened, didn’t even cry afterwards. This is one tough kid!

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      That’s scary. Be sure to watch him closely and have him drink plenty of fluids. One explanation on not much of a local reaction could be if that’s the first time he’s been bitten. The body often has needs to have been exposed at least once, sometimes more, before mounting any allergic reaction. And of course, he sounds very tough.

      • Noneya Biness

        By the end of the day yesterday the bites were looking like they would subside, but then today they all have big white raised bumps on each one. I got bit by one too when I was cleaning him off and the same thing happened. It doesn’t itch much, but the white bumps look terrible. It does look like he has a slight amount of swelling in his hands where the most bites are and his skin is warm in those areas. Luckily the ants never made it to his face or torso. When I realized what was happening all the ants had moved to the outside of his shirt and were biting his shirt. He still looks worse than any fire ant bite images I’ve seen on the internet. I counted 60 bites on just his left hand.

        • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

          Thanks horrible, Noneya. Be sure to keep them very clean and, with that many on a young child, don’t hesitate to check in with your regular doctor.

  • Quinton

    I got stung in my upper thigh and the little booger actually worked it’s way up and stung my penis. I have swelling around the outer skin area. Should I see the doctor or will it be alright?

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Your call. Because the skin is looser there the swelling can be more but otherwise, usually it’s like getting stung anywhere else.

  • ungullible

    Basic chemistry tells you that the solution can NOT be both vinegar and baking soda, and definitely not combined. Vinegar is an acid that will neutralize basic venoms, and baking soda is a base that will neutralize acidic venoms. Only one or the other will work, and knowing whether the venom is basic or acidic is the key. Using the wrong one may make it worse, Mixing them (in the correct proportions) will result in a water and a salt that do nothing. I’m no ant expert, but a quick google/wiki says that ant venom is typically formic acid – so only use the baking soda.

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Thanks, ungullible, you makes interesting points. My understanding is that a fire ant sting produces complex, alkaline toxin. They bite also and this may or may not inject a little formic acid. But, I’m also reading that other ants that are bitten by fire ants produce formic acid to neutralize a fire ant sting. So what to do? Well, fortunately, although the burning and itching of a fire ant sting can be intense, it’s self-limiting. And I don’t know of any real studies checking which home remedy works. Some people swear by vinegar, others by baking soda. I don’t think either is likely to cause harm so, I think it’s mostly trial and error. Me? I’d probably use baking soda, but if vinegar was more readily available, I’d use that. You’re right, I wouldn’t use both at the same time. There’s no harm, but you would be weakening the effects of both.

  • SDR

    Just wanted to offer a tip for stopping the itch from bug bites or hives. I got this out of a book they used to give out to military families of minor home medical treatment called “Take Care Of Yourself”.

    With older children and adults (NOT on little ones, NOT on the elderly, and NOT on anyone who cannot tell if they are getting burned or who have extremely sensitive skin), put hot water on the bite (for example, a hot washcloth) with as hot of water that the patient can stand. It will burn and itch like CRAZY for about 20 seconds. Keep reapplying until there is no itch (truly, it only takes less than a minute). Apparently, according to the book, this causes the cells to release their histamine at once and it takes a few hours for the cells to build up the histamine again. The book said it provides up to 8 hours of relief, if I remember correctly, but we usually only get about 4-6 hours–but the relief is complete. We found it works much better than topical Benadryl, calamine, cold water, oatmeal, etc.

    I have also used coins that were hot from sitting on the dash in a car on a warm (not hot) day on mosquito bites that were driving me crazy.

    Again, do not scald the skin (the water should not be painful to healthy skin–just really hot), and I cannot convey enough not to use it on little ones, the elderly, or anyone with impaired senses or fragile skin. Don’t do this on the face or other tender skin.

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Great tip, SDR. I do have that as way of symptom relief with poison ivy, but I’d glad to know it works on fire ant bites as well.

  • Kate J.

    I got bit by a fire ant a day ago and my toe is swollen to the point that it hurts to walk. Trying the baking soda+vinegar combination. Will that help the swelling or just the itching sensation?

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Besides the suggestions in the post? Maybe elevating it to heart level. Have you tried ice packs, beanery, or ibuprofen?

  • nonlineartime

    Hi there! I have mild asthma that is exacerbated mostly by mold and some pollens. This week in central Texas, we had a lot of rain so I had some tightness in my chest from the mold and moisture in the air. This is not unusual when it rains here, and a benadryl on top of the daily allergy meds mostly takes care of it. I was out doing some yard work two days ago and got 4-6 fire ant bites (some of the pustules might be the stings I’ve read can happen when they’re biting you), and my breathing was a bit worse yesterday. I’ve been bitten before, but not more than twice at the same time. It was unclear to me whether the breathing problem could be associated with the ant bites or just the normal tightness from environmental allergens. I generally eat a low inflammation diet which helps keep the itchiness of mosquito and ant bites reasonable. Do you think I should go get tested for an allergy to ant bites? I’ve never been stung by a bee so I don’t know if I’m allergic to them. I had a prick test once, but I don’t recall if they included bees, though they definitely didn’t include ants since I lived in a fire ant free place at the time. If I am allergic to the ants would the reaction have been much more acute?

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      I think you should get the opinion or your doctor who treats your asthma. Sounds like a possible flare up it from weather. But, again, I’d talk to your doctor since he/she knows your individual situation. Oh, and I do have a post on bee allergies http://www.thesurvivaldoctor.com/2012/05/08/allergic-reaction-to-bee-stings/

      • nonlineartime

        Thanks for the advice! It does seem that the reaction would be much more acute if I were really allergic based on some of these other stories. Thankfully for the asthma problem, Texas is usually very dry so it’s rare I even remember I have it.

  • Rcsully

    Experiencing my first bout with bites on my hands. I have been told to pop the venom blister but have read online not to pop it. Should I pop or should I not pop it? Just for the record man do these bites itch …

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      I see no reason to pop it, just wash with soap and water. But I don’ see a compelling reason not to. Except any that are not intact increase risk for a bacterial skin infection, so again, keeping the area clean is important.