Bitten by a Fire Ant? What to Do and How to Protect Yourself

Fire ant
Fire ants bite, then sting. Here's how to protect yourself. Annemarie van den Berg/Moment/Getty Images

A very common question about fire ants is whether their "attack" is considered to be a bite or a sting. The answer is ... both! First, they bite to get a good grip, then they sting, injecting the venom that causes the pain, itch, or other reaction.

Fire ants are very aggressive insects and whether you call it a bite or a sting, it hurts and itches! This article will primarily use the word "sting," to keep from repeating bite or sting throughout, and explain more about fire ant's sting, what to do if you are attacked, and how to protect yourself.

In most cases, the sting will simply be irritating, generally with a burning sensation, and become itchy, but if a person is stung by more than one fire ant at a time or is allergic to insect bites or stings, it can be much more serious, even resulting in illness or death. The following provides tips on protecting yourself from fire ants and what to do if you are stung.

How Do You Know If You've Been Bitten or Stung by a Fire Ant?

  • When it stings, the fire ant injects venom into your skin that will cause the area to feel as though it has been burned.
  • The site of the sting will first appear as a red bump.
  • If it was an imported fire ant that stung you, within a day or two, the bump will resemble a blister or white-headed pimple/pustule.
  • This is a definite sign of a fire ant sting, as it is unique to imported fire ant venom.
  • The bite of the native fire ant will not turn into a white pustule, however, a severe reaction can result from the bite or sting of this ant as well.

    Protect Yourself From Fire Ants

    • As soon as you see or feel a fire ant crawling onto you, quickly swipe it off and leave the area. Once a fire ant is firmly on you, it will "bite" with its jaws to attach itself to you. A fire ant will pivot its head to continue to bite and sting as long as it is on your skin. It will even continue to sting after all its venom is gone.
      Note: if you live in a fire ant area, it is advisable to swipe any ant off of you, whether you know it is a fire ant or not.
    • Stay away from ant mounds, do not disturb or play with ants.
    • Before picking up things from the ground, inspect the area for ant mounds or other ant presence, and check the item itself for ants.
    • When working outdoors :​
      • Check the area first for ant mounds or ants – including checking on plants and in water.
      • Wear shoes or boots, socks, and long pants, and tuck pants down into your socks or boots
      • If you are allergic to any insect bite or sting, carry an "EpiPen" (epinephrine injector) with you. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also advises that you wear medical ID jewelry stating your allergy.
    • A study by the Mississippi Department of Health showed that the wearing of socks was a more effective protection than were tested repellents. Results of the study were that:
      • Socks of any type reduced the number of fire ants that reached the skin and delayed the time required for ants to reach the skin above the sock level.
      • Fire ants were unable to sting through all socks tested.
      • When chemical repellent was applied, ants still stung human skin.
    • As a result, the study concluded:
      • Children living in fire ant-infested areas should wear socks or cotton tights which can also protect their lower legs.
      • Fire ants are not deterred from stinging by a wide variety of insect repellents and chemical substances.

      If You Do Get Stung by a Fire Ant

      Take the advice of the CDC:

      • Take an antihistamine, following package directions.
      • If you experience severe chest pain, nausea, severe sweating, loss of breath, serious swelling, or slurred speech, seek medical attention immediately.

      For more information from sources referenced for this article, see: