COLLEGE STATION – Getting stung by ants doesnÆt sound like much to worry about – and for most people, it isn’t – but for those who develop an allergy to fire ant venom, getting stung by these insects can be deadly.
According to the Texas Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Society (http://www.texasallergy.org/) , more people have died in Texas from reactions to fire ants than anywhere else in the United States.
Although the number of people who experience these severe reactions is small – the state society estimates that between 1 percent and 6 percent of the people who are stung by fire ants have severe reactions – everyone should still treat fire ants with caution.
Dr. David Weldon, assistant professor of internal medicine at Texas A&M University System Health Sciences Center and section chief of allergy/immunology clinic at Scott & White Clinic in College Station, estimates about one out of every 100 people in Texas will have a systemic reaction to fire ant stings. The central and eastern part of Texas and the southeastern area of the United States is “fire ant territory,” he said.
When it comes to their venom, sensitivity varies, Weldon said.
“Some people will have a reaction within minutes; others will take an hour or so. For some it’s a gradual process.”
Fire ants are aggressive and will defensively attack anything that disturbs them, according to Dr. Bart Drees, professor and Texas Cooperative Extension entomologist. That means it doesn’t take much to stir them up. And because fire ants can and do sting repeatedly, a person who is attacked by fire ants is rarely stung only once.
Drees is co-author of a booklet, “Managing Imported Fire Ants In Urban Areas.” He is also Texas Fire Ant project coordinator for Extension and the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station.
Typical reactions to fire ant stings include burning, itching and white pustules that form within a day or so.
“Although the stings are not usually life threatening,” the booklet states, “they are easily infected if the skin is broken, and may leave permanent scars.”
Some 20 percent to 50 percent of fire ant stings will be accompanied by large swellings. If this happens, apply ice to the swelling. If necessary, antihistamines and corticosteroids may be prescribed.
Weldon noted that a person needs immediate medical attention if he or she experiences more serious reactions – for example, chest pain, nausea, shortness of breath, hives or dizziness.
Some people have died because they waited too long to be examined and to start medical treatment, he said.
Most fire ant stings are more uncomfortable than dangerous – and more people die from bee and wasp stings than from fire ant stings, Drees noted. Even so, a person with a reaction may lapse into a coma from just one fire ant sting.
Weldon cautioned that a person can develop a sensitivity to fire ant venom and not know it until the sting produces a dangerous systemic reaction. And once that happens, 66 percent of them will have the same symptoms or worse with subsequent stings. These people are strongly advised to seek evaluation and advice from an allergist.
To avoid stings in the first place, Drees suggested:
– Teaching everyone – including children – about fire ants and how hazardous they are;
– Wearing protective clothing during outdoor activities; wearing shoes or boots and tucking pant legs into socks;
– Treating stings with insect bite remedies that deaden pain and protect against infection;
– Controlling fire ants in yards and other areas frequented by people and pets;
– Using insect repellents on clothes and shoes, which can discourage foraging ants – at least temporarily.
For more details, visit the Fire Ant Project Web site at http://fireant.tamu.edu and see Fire Ant Plan Fact Sheet No. 23.
For more information or to locate an allergist, call TAAIS toll-free at (888) 451-9752.