Some species of fire ants are native to Texas and additional species of the pesky insects likely made their way in the soil of plants that were transported on ships. But, however they got here, the red fire ant is common throughout the state and most Texans know to avoid the large, round mounds of dirt that house the wingless insects with the big sting.
Fire ants can be difficult to distinguish from other stinging ant species. Both native Texas fire ants and imported species are typically small in size and dark orange or brown in color. Red harvester ants – which also sting – are larger.
Stepping on a nest is the most common way to provoke stings. Fire ant victims usually suffer multiple stings within a matter of seconds. The insects first bite the skin to maintain their position, quickly following with a zap from the rear stinger. The venom produces an instant burning sensation, followed by intense itching and a skin reaction. A raised wheal forms and is later replaced with a small pustule that typically lasts several days. After the pustule ruptures, a crust forms and healing begins.
Individuals that are highly sensitive to the fire ant venom or who have been previously stung by the insects can experience serious – sometimes lift threatening – reactions. Extreme skin reactions including excessive swelling or intense itching at the site of the bite should be evaluated by a medical professional. When nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, severe weakness or difficulty breathing occurs, immediate emergency care is needed.
Treatment of fire ant bites includes washing the affected area with cool, soapy water as soon as possible. Benadryl or a similar over-the-counter oral antihistamine can be used to reduce itching and swelling. A mild anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen may be used for pain relief.
Hydrocortisone ointment applied directly to the bites may reduce localized skin reaction. Mild hydrocortisone ointments are available over-the-counter, but your dermatologist may suggest prescription strength ointments or oral corticosteroids in the case of severe skin reaction.
While healing, keep the affected skin clean and dry and avoiding scratching or popping the pustules, which can increase the risk of infection and scarring.