Ants are unique social creatures found in many parts of the world. Despite their somewhat negative reputation, ants often form symbiotic relationships with other organisms and help control common crop-destroying pests like mealybugs. Stinging serves as a defense mechanism and helps ants catch their prey. Learning about the behavior of ants allows you to take precautions to avoid bites and stings.
Ants are extremely diverse and far-flung insects. More than 12,000 ant species have been identified throughout the world, according to Pestworld for Kids. Most ants are capable of biting or stinging, though certain types--like fire and bullet ants--are more aggressive and have more painful stings. The red imported fire ant arrived in the U.S. on cargo ships in the 1930s, demonstrating the ant's ability to survive harsh conditions and adapt to different environments. Other species found in the U.S. include carpenter, house and cow ants.
When ants sting, they inject venom that causes severe pain and swelling at the injection site. According to the National Institutes of Health, fire ant stings can cause anaphylactic shock, a potentially lethal type of allergic reaction. While the vast majority of stings are not fatal, they are often painful and can cause other symptoms like nausea or dizziness. Stepping on ant mounds can result in multiple stings, which increases the likelihood of a serious reaction. Merck Manuals Online states that fire ant stings often lead to blistering and infection after the initial symptoms wear off. Other potential symptoms include itching, scarring and discoloration.
Treatment and Prevention
Avoiding contact with ants when possible is the best way to prevent bites and stings. To treat the pain of an ant bite, apply a cold compress or corticosteroid cream to the affected area. Oral antihistamines like diphenhydramine may also be used to relieve symptoms like redness and swelling. Topical ointments containing an anesthetic like benzocaine are another option for quick pain relief. For indoor infestations, an exterminator can offer solutions for killing existing colonies and preventing future invasions.
While rare, deadly reactions can occur in sensitive individuals following ant bites. Merck Manuals Online warns those with insect sting allergies to carry an epinephrine syringe at all times. If you experience throat swelling, hives, difficulty breathing or fainting after an ant sting, seek help immediately to prevent life-threatening complications.