Ow! How do I deal with red ant bites?

Dear Alice,

I got bit three times on the foot by small red ants and my foot is swollen... what should I do?

Dear Reader,

It sounds as though you had an unfortunate run-in with a mean gang of fire ants — aggressive red insects named for their burning sting. If a fire ant feels threatened or its colony gets disturbed by an unwary passerby, it will latch onto the skin and sting multiple times in a semi-circular pattern, injecting toxin-rich venom with each attack. While there is no treatment for the venom in fire ant stings, some steps can be taken to reduce symptoms and mitigate discomfort.

A fire ant sting causes instant redness, pain, and burning, which usually lasts about ten minutes. After the pain subsides, the itching sets in, and the stings start to develop into hive-like bumps. A few hours after the initial symptoms, the sting blisters and turns into an intensely itchy white pustule. The pustules usually open on their own within three days before drying up, though they may last for a week. Fire ant bites can also cause general swelling around the sting, which usually lasts one to two days. In rare cases (less than two percent), people bitten by fire ants can experience anaphylaxis, an allergic reaction that can be fatal. The following symptoms may indicate a life-threatening reaction and require immediate attention from a health care provider:

  • Wheezing or trouble breathing
  • Swelling of the face or throat
  • Chest pain
  • Slurred speech
  • Fainting or feeling too weak to stand
  • Stomach pain or vomiting
  • Fever and spreading redness around the stings

Immediately after a sting, elevating the limb that was bitten and applying ice or a cold compress may help reduce swelling and pain. If pain persists, over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen may be helpful; as a bonus, ibuprofen also reduces inflammation and swelling. For itching relief, you might consider applying hydrocortisone cream directly to the stings or taking oral allergy medications (antihistamines). While the pustules usually clear on their own within a few days if left alone, they may become infected if scratched or broken open, in which case it’s recommended to use a topical antibiotic ointment for a couple days to help prevent secondary infections.

To avoid future bites while you're in red ant territory, keep an eye out for anthills and consider wearing closed-toe shoes and socks. Covering your skin by wearing long pants, long sleeved shirts, and gloves may provide some extra protection.

Good luck keeping the ants out of your pants!

Last updated Jun 24, 2022
Originally published Dec 12, 2003