Red Ants Reaction and Treatment: What is a True Allergic Reaction to Red Ants?

Fire ant bites are painful, but allergic reactions are rare. Image by Stephen Ausmus

The red ant grasps human skin with its tiny mandibles and spews its venom under the skin resulting instantaneously in pain.

Usually there are several ants biting at a time, and the bites appear as white pustules or yellowish blisters on a raised red base.

The bites are itchy and painful, and expel a clear liquid when they burst.

Fire Ant Bites: Ouch

Red ants, also known as fire ants, are part of a species with hundreds of variants. We find the dark red tiny ant in South America, and throughout the southern United States, Australia, Taiwan, and the Phillipines, to name a few – most typically in sunny, sandy places.

While not all red ants are vicious biting ants, you will certainly be wary of the powerful sting these tiny insects can render if you are bitten – especially if you are bitten more than once.

When you get several fire ant bites there is often surrounding swelling, say on a foot or hand, and moderate to extreme discomfort. It is at this point that you may find yourself at your doctor’s office, wondering what to do – and further wondering if you are allergic to the ants, or if you have an infection.

This foot swelled after several fire ant bites. Photo by lisavollrath

What is a True Red Ant Bite Allergy?

Scratching raised red ant bites can open the skin, resulting in infection. There is then more erythema (redness) and swelling and even more discomfort.

This isn’t an allergy, nor is the initial bite response of a raised reddened pustule, nor even the accompanying swelling a sign of allergic reaction. These are all normal reactions to the bite itself.

An true allergic reaction is a systemic result of the bite(s). There might be a change in blood pressure, swelling on another untouched part of the body, such as the tongue or face or the entire leg when only the foot is bitten.

There might be shortness of breath, or even passing out. People who are allergic to ant bites might carry an epi-pen with them so they can easily give themselves a shot of epinephrine in their thigh (right through pants if necessary) until help can come.

Swarms of red ants after storms or in large piles have bitten humans, and the sheer number of bites can cause death or allergic reactions, although this is rare. These extreme attacks are not the norm and thus are reported in the news such as the attacks in 2006 and 2008.

Red Ant Bite Treatment

The typical treatment for the unfortunate person bitten begins with washing the area with an alcohol wipe. This helps diminish the stinging effect temporarily and cleans the site. Next, you can apply a steroid cream, such as an over the counter hydrocortisone cream, locally. Scratching the blister roof off may put you at risk of locally infecting yourself, so try to leave the bumps alone as much as possible. Try an over the counter antihistamine (allergy pills) to help reduce the itching, or making meat tenderizer into a paste and applying it to the skin to treat symptoms. Benadryl is helpful for itching and swelling, but has a sedative effect for many people. Over time, the bite eventually ulcerates and the redness gradually recedes.

Fire Ants: When to See a Doctor

Most people get over an ant bite with a few days – if your bites are getting worse instead of better, or if you have any health concerns, always check with your doctor. Remember, ants don’t bite people unless they step in their area – that is, they don’t attack humans, but wait till they feel threatened. The ants may not be out to get you, and you may not suffer a severe allergic reaction, but their bite does hurt, so be prepared.

Sources

Pest World.org. Red Imported Fire Ants. (2012). Accessed December 7, 2012.

University of Florida. Featured Creatures Red Imported Fire Ant. (2012). Accessed December 7, 2012.

Source: Fact Sheet 041, Welcome to Texas! Avoiding the Sting of Fire AntsAccessed December 7, 2012.

ABC News. Beware of Bugs. (2006). Accessed December 7, 2012.

Pravada.ru. Fire Ant Bites Kill Florida Man. (2008). Accessed December 7, 2012.

© Copyright 2012 Amy Andersen, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Science
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Comments

  1. Amy Andersen says

    The bites may appear a few days after being bitten by red ants. They usually resolve in the order of they appeared, that is not all at once.

  2. Teresa Abell says

    Just curious…I got into some fire ants while gardening and ended up with several bites. This was 2 days ago and I’ve got more bites surfacing? What’s up with them surfacing this long after the original bites in different places?

  3. Jared says

    I was bitten on Wednesday morning while working in the yard by several fire ants. At first it hurt but nothing that made me think it was serious. By that night it has gotten a little worse but still nothing to cause alarm. The following day, when I woke up the pain as worse as well as the swelling. It has continued to get much worse since then. I now have a lot of trouble walking and carrying out simple activities without excruciating pain. Is this due to an allergic reaction?

    • Amy AndersenAm Andersen says

      Jared, Im sorry this happened to you. I know its painful. Unfortunately, this is the series of events when you have gotten bitten by a lot of red ants. It does get worse before getting better. The swelling is due to the fluid in the vesicles. Once that dissolves you will have less pain and can walk normally. But if you have many bites and aren’t getting better, its best to get yourself checked out medically. You may need steroids or other medication to for your recovery.

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