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Fire ants

Fire ants are red-colored insects that sting and deliver a harmful substance, called venom, into your skin.

This is for information only and not for use in the treatment or management of an actual poison exposure. If you have an exposure, you should call your local emergency number (such as 911) or the National Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.

Poisonous Ingredient

Fire ant venom contains a chemical called piperidine.

Where Found

Fire ants build dirt nests that form mounds, usually in open grass settings. They are typically found in the southern United States and other areas that do not freeze in winter.

Symptoms

Symptoms may include:

  • Swelling , redness, itchiness, and pain around the site of bite
  • Pus-filled blisters that last 3 - 8 days
  • Possible scab at the area of the bite that lasts 3 - 10 days

Those allergic to fire ant venom may also have

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Throat swelling

Home Care

Home treatment depends on the location of, and reaction to, the sting.

Wash the exposed area with plenty of soap and water. Do not use alcohol to wash the area. Wash eyes with plenty of water if any toxin gets in them.

For mild stings, place ice (wrapped in a washcloth or other suitable covering) on the bite area for 10 minutes and then off for 10 minutes. Repeat this process. If the patient has circulatory problems, decrease the time to prevent possible damage to the skin.

Some people are allergic to fire ant venom. If the reaction is severe, seek immediate medical help and call your local emergency number (such as 911) or poison control.

Those who have an allergy to insect bites or stings should carry a bee sting kit (which requires a prescription) and become familiar with how to use it in the event of an emergency.

Before Calling Emergency

Determine the following information:

  • Patient's age, weight, and condition
  • Identification of the insect, if possible
  • Time of the bite

Poison Control

The National Poison Control Center (1-800-222-1222) can be called from anywhere in the United States. This national hotline number will let you talk to experts in poisoning. They will give you further instructions.

This is a free and confidential service. All local poison control centers in the United States use this national number. You should call if you have any questions about poisoning or poison prevention. It does NOT need to be an emergency. You can call for any reason, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

See: Poison control center - emergency number

What to Expect at the Emergency Room

The health care provider will measure and monitor the patient's vital signs, including temperature, pulse, breathing rate, and blood pressure. The wound will be treated as appropriate.

The patient may receive:

  • Breathing support
  • Fluids through a vein (IV)
  • Medications to treat symptoms

Outlook (Prognosis)

The sooner appropriate treatment is started, the better the outcome. Patients not allergic to fire ants should be completely fine in a few hours to a few days. Individuals with severe allergic reactions may need to be hospitalized.

References

Walden J. Jungle travel and survival. In: Auerbach PS, ed. Wilderness Medicine. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2007:chap 37.

Steen CJ, Schwartz RA. Arthropod bites and stings. In: Wolff K, Goldsmith LA, Katz SI, et al., eds. Fitzpatrick's Dermatology in General Medicine. 7th ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2008:chap 210.

Otten EJ. Venomous Animal Injuries. In: Marx JA, ed. Rosen's Emergency Medicine - Concepts and Clinical Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2013:chap 62.

Updated: 10/17/2013

Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.


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