Everything You Need To Know About Ant Bites

You should definitely watch where you step—here's why.

Insect bites are pretty unavoidable—we are invading their homes when we go outside, after all. But because there are so many different species of bugs that can nip at your skin, it's hard to pinpoint which bug did the damage once you see a mark on your body.

While spider bites, flea bites, or even bee stings may come up first when talking about bugs and their interactions with humans, there's one well-known (but lesser-suspected) type of bug that can leave a pretty nasty mark: ants. Here's what you need to know about ant bites—including symptoms, treatments, and prevention techniques—just in case you come across them.

What Exactly Are Ant Bites?

There are quite a few different species of ants, but when we talk about ant bites, we're referring to fire ants, John Anthony, MD, a dermatologist at Cleveland Clinic, told Health. These fire ants are red-colored insects, hence their name.

It's also a common misconception that ants "bite" at all. "Most ants actually don't bite. It's actually a sting," Dr. Anthony said.

Fire ants sting you by first latching onto your skin with their jaws. After that, they sting you multiple times, making a circle as they go, Dr. Anthony said. In stinging you, the ants also unleash venom into the sting, which contains a chemical called piperidine. The result, therefore, is a "little tiny red mark surrounded by pus bumps," Dr. Anthony said.

Signs and Symptoms of Ant Bites

The most common reaction to a fire ant sting or bite is a red, raised welt. The following day, the welt will go down, but a pustule will likely take its place. Also worth noting is the fact that you probably won't come away with just one mark by one ant, Dr. Anthony said. "They're very aggressive, and they swarm. It's unusual to get one bite."

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Fire ant bites can cause itching and burning. "They have venom and they bite, so they're painful," Tania Mucci-Elliot, MD, an allergist and immunologist at NYU Langone's Department of Infectious Disease, Allergy and Immunology, said.

But some individuals who get bit by a fire ant experience more than a localized reaction on the skin. For instance, if you're bitten on your leg and you're allergic, a fire ant bite could cause your whole leg to swell up, in addition to other symptoms like trouble breathing.

"Some people are allergic to fire ant stings," Dr. Anthony said, though this is rare. In this situation, the stings can cause a life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis with symptoms of hives, swelling in the throat, difficulty breathing, palpitations, or loss of consciousness.

How Are Ant Bites Treated—And How Can They Be Prevented?

Your treatment depends on the severity of your reaction. If red welts are your only symptoms, your treatment will be focused on local care. "It's usually cool compresses [and] cool water. Sometimes antihistamine medicines can help," Dr. Anthony said, and added that topical steroids might be used to treat the welts, or oral steroids if the welts are severe enough; it can take up to a week for the affected area to completely clear up.

If you already know you are allergic and have an epinephrine injector (aka, an EpiPen) you should use it right after you become aware of the bites, Dr. Anthony said. If you develop a severe reaction because of an allergy to fire ant bites, you need to go to the hospital emergency room or call 911 so you can get an epinephrine injection.

Fire ants are mainly a problem in southern states in the United States. "You don't really get fire ant bites up in the North," Dr. Mucci-Elliott said.

So anytime you're outside in a southern state, you should be mindful of your surroundings. This means watching where you're walking, sitting, or spending really any amount of time—and especially remembering to wear shoes when you're walking around. In particular, you should watch out for earth mounds in your backyard, Dr. Anthony said. These are soft mounds that will appear overnight in your yard.

When you initially approach the mounds, you won't necessarily see the fire ants. However, "if you disturb them, they'll swarm," Dr. Anthony said.

Other protective measures include proactively applying an insect repellent that contains DEET. Dr. Mucci-Elliott said you should make sure your insect repellent is appropriate for the activity you have planned. For instance, if you're going hiking in the woods, consider a bug repellent specifically for the deep woods.

Wearing protective clothing could also benefit you when you're spending a lot of time outdoors, Dr. Mucci-Elliott said.

A Quick Review

Mainly found in the southern states, fire ants are red-colored ants that build earth mounds. If the mounds are disturbed, the ants can swarm and "bite"—or, technically, sting.

Reactions to ant stings can vary from mild to severe. Severe allergic reactions will require a trip to the emergency room. If you have a known allergy to ant stings, keep an epinephrine injector on you, especially if you're in an area with fire ants. Otherwise try cool compresses and antihistamines to help calm any welts or irritation, and take measures to prevent getting stung in the first place.

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Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. MedlinePlus. Fire ants.

  2. American Osteopathic College of Dermatology. Fire ant bites.

  3. MedlinePlus. Anaphylaxis.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fire ants.

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