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Quick reference medical handouts used by Pediatric offices

Beware of the Fire Ant!

As the weather turns warm, kids emerge from school to play outside and the insects come out of their long winter rest. One insect that could stay asleep permanently is the fire ant. This insect is very hardy, and has a bite that will get your child's attention very quickly. For the most part, fire ants are a "people pest," because they often occupy the same areas where we work, live and play.

When it comes to fire ants, the best treatment is avoidance. Aggressive, venomous and highly mobile, fire ants were first entered ithe United States via the port of Mobile, Alabama from South America in the early 1920s. They probably arrived in the soil used as a ballast for ships originating from Paraguay, Uruguay, and southern Brazil. Since that time these meddlesome creatures have slowly migrated throughout most of the southern United States. They have also been reported throughout North Carolina, a good part of Virginia, into southern Maryland, and even the southern tip of New Jersey. Fire ants injure livestock, damage crops and farm equipment, destroy native fauna and wildlife, and bite people- especially kids!

The ants are small (less than a quarter of an inch long), reddish-brown to black and live in colonies that consist of mounds with long, radiating underground tunnels. The mounds can mature for years if undisturbed and a mature mound can contain more than 250,000 ants with several queens. Children often mistake fire ant mounds for sand piles, and that's when problems arise. They are sensitive to vibration and movement, and will sting when the object they're on moves (for example, a child running through the gras with bare feet who knocks into an ant mound.

Fire ants are so named because their venom induces a painful, fiery sensation. When disturbed, fire ants are very aggressive. The ant grips the skin with its jaws and stings its victim several times in a circular pattern. Because of the ant's aggressive nature, an attack usually results in several stings. The ant injects a venom when it stings that causes the release of histamine, a chemical in our bodies that can produce pain, itching, swelling and redness of the skin. Within seconds, a small red welt appears. Which enlarges rapidly, depending on the amount of venom that was injected. This reaction persists for up to an hour, and than a small blister containing clear fluid appears. Over the next half day or so, the fluid in the blister turns cloudy, and the area begins to itch. If the child scratches too vigorously, the skin can be secondarily infected.

To help children avoid fire ants, parents should regularly check their yards and their children's play areas for the presence of the ants and their mounds. Then they should either eliminate the ants or make sure children avoid them.

Treatment for Fire Ant Bites

1. Remove all ants from the child's body to prevent further stinging

2.. If a child is stung, apply ice to the bite site for 10 to 15 minutes.

3. Elevate the extremity where the child was bit.

4. .Clean and clip the child's fingernails to prevent any secondary infection that can result from scratching the bite.

5. Check with the child's pediatrician for the correct dose of an oral antihistamine to reduce itching and inflammation

6.A small percentage of children stung -- probably less than 0 .5 percent -- experience a severe (anaphylactic) reaction. These occur within minutes of a sting and vary in severity. A child who is stung and within minutes begins to experience hives, weakness, dizziness, wheezing, difficulty swallowing, shortness of breath or confusion should be taken immediately to the nearest emergency room.

7. Watch the area for signs of infection over the next couple of days.

8. Reaction to fire ant stings is similar to reaction to the stings of bees, wasps, hornets and yellow jackets. The overwhelming majority of fire ant stings are medically uncomplicated and are more of a nuisance than a serious problem.


As a reminder, this information should not be relied on as medical advice and is not intended to replace the advice of your child’s pediatrician. Please read our full disclaimer.

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