Fire Ants: what to do when stung?

Red Imported Fire Ant
Red Imported Fire Ant – known for its painful sting and aggressive nature.

Red Imported Fire Ants are a pest found predominantly in developed areas of South East Queensland. They are known for their aggressive nature, painful sting, and for attacking crops, livestock, and native flora and fauna.

Why are Fire Ants so Dangerous?

When a fire ant stings you, it can leave swelling, redness, and a severe burning or itching sensation for up to an hour. A small blister will subsequently form at the site of each sting after several hours, which are prone to infection if broken.

Fire ants are particularly dangerous to those with allergies, as they tend to swarm and sting all at once. Likewise, they have strong mandibles and can hang on to your skin while stinging repeatedly, thereby causing a build up of venom in your body and increasing the risk of an extreme reaction. Signs and symptoms of an anaphylactic reaction in an allergic casualty can include hives, facial swelling, rapid pulse, breathing difficulties, and collapse.

Fire ants communicate with their colony through chemical secretions and by rubbing different parts of their body together, which is caused stridulation. When their nest is disturbed, fire ants subsequently signal one another to swarm and attack the supposed threat. This is why fire ants can bring down whole livestock - stings issued around the eyes, mouth, and nose can lead to blindness and suffocation.

Where are Fire Ants Found?

Fire ants are native to South America. They were accidentally introduced to Alabama in the 1930s, and have now become pests in the Southern United States, and significant swathes of South East Asia, including some southern Chinese provinces.

Fire ants were first detected in Brisbane in 2001, though it is thought they may have hitched a ride to Australia in American shipping containers decades earlier. Since then, the Australian Government has instigated a National Fire Ant Eradication Program to contain and destroy fire ants in South East Queensland.

The National Fire Ant Eradication Program's fire ant map shows sites in South East Queensland that have had fire ants in the last 12 months.

Fire Ant Nest
Fire ant nests can look like dome shaped mounds of dirt.

What do Fire Ants Look Like?

Fire ants are copper brown in colour with a darker abdomen. Their bite is ostensibly worse than their bark, as they are quite small and typically measure from 2 to 6 mm.

Fire ant nests typically house ants of varying sizes. The nests can look like dome shaped mounds of dirt or simply flat patches of disturbed soil. They are often found in open areas like parks, sporting fields, and residential backyards, though they can also be found under or around logs, rocks, and bricks.

Fire ants enter and leave their nests via a myriad of underground tunnels, so there are no visible entry or exit holes.

What do you do if you are stung by a fire ant?

  1. Move the casualty and others away from the fire ants.
  2. Calm and reassure the casualty.
  3. Apply a cold compress to the affected area to reduce pain and swelling.
  4. Gently wash the affected area with soap and water.
  5. Leave the blisters intact.
  6. Monitor for signs of an allergic reaction.
  7. Report the incident to the authorities and ensure the area is closed off to reduce the chances of future stings

If the casualty begins exhibiting signs of an allergic reaction, call Triple Zero (000) for an ambulance, follow the Australian Resuscitation Council's anaphylaxis treatment guideline, and follow DRSABCD and be prepared to perform CPR.

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