For 33-year-old Varsha Mohan, relaxing in nature or enjoying a trek was just not possible as she always had to look out for ants and ant mounds before settling down. Ant bites are generally harmless and the pain usually disappears in a few minutes to hours. However, for those allergic to ant bites, the rashes and burning sensation can last for days.
Varsha, a resident of Bengaluru and an architect, carries an insect repellent spray wherever she goes to avoid getting bitten by an ant. “I learned about my allergy in college when I went out with my friends for a trek and started noticing huge rashes all over my hands and legs after getting bitten by ants,” she said.
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What causes the allergic reaction?
When ants bite, they spit out a substance called formic acid onto the person’s skin which causes the allergic reaction, says Dr S Hema Sowjanya, consultant dermatologist, Manipal Hospitals, Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh.
“The release of this poison inside the skin and the squeeze from their mandibles (teeth) cause the symptoms of an ant bite. For those allergic to formic acid, it can trigger an immune reaction in the person’s body that extends beyond the site of the ant bite,” she explained.
Fire ants can bite or sting you again as they don’t perish after stinging, says Dr K Vishwesh Avadhani, emergency consultant, Kamineni Hospitals, Hyderabad. “If the ant is on your skin, brush it off and keep in mind that ants mostly exist in groups, so if you see one, there may be others nearby,” he cautions.
Symptoms of ant bite allergy
Dr Sowjanya said that the mild symptoms usually include swelling and pain due to the allergic reaction.
In Varsha’s case, the swelling, itch and severe burning sensation remained for three days until she got diagnosed with ant bite allergy and started treatment.
Although a severe allergic reaction is uncommon, it can be fatal, says Dr Avadhani while listing out the symptoms:
- Stomach cramps accompanied by nausea
- Tightness in the chest
- Difficulty in breathing
- Swelling of the tongue or throat
He adds that severe allergic reactions could be life-threatening leading to whole-body rashes and anaphylactic shock.
Dr Avadhani says that if the signs and symptoms of an ant bite persist for more than a week to ten days, the person must consult his/her doctor. “Your healthcare provider may suggest alternative or more potent treatments if at-home remedies such as ice (to reduce swelling), acetaminophen (to relieve pain) and antihistamines (to stop itching) don’t relieve your symptoms,” he adds.
The common allergy is not severe
Dr Sowjanya says that although several ant species can be dangerous to people, only a few can cause potentially fatal allergic reactions. She says that normally, people who come in contact with ant venom experience the symptoms.
“Formic acid comprises a variety of biologically active peptides (amino acids), protein parts, acids and alkaloids (chemicals made from plants) which are particularly likely to cause an allergy. Hence, it is a very common allergy worldwide,” she adds.
Dr Sowjanya lists out a few simple treatment methods which can be used based on doctors’ prescription:
- Ice cubes to minimise swelling.
- Topical hydrocortisone cream or antihistamines to treat itching.
- Acetaminophen as a pain reliever.
- Corticosteroids to treat inflammation.
- Calamine lotion which acts like a soothing agent.
Dr Avadhani says, “Severe swelling, changes in consciousness and breathing issues within an hour of the sting necessitate emergency medical attention. The reaction can be reversed with immediate administration of epinephrine. Some medical professionals advise carrying an EpiPen in case of an anaphylactic reaction (due to a fire ant sting) which can be used to administer epinephrine right away.”
Tips to keep yourself safe from ant bites
- Wearing protective clothing such as thick socks, close-toed shoes, long pants, gloves and boots while working outside.
- Avoiding working in or around fire ant mounds.
- Using insect repellents.
- Moving out of the area immediately if one is stung by a fire ant or if fire ants are found on the body.
- Using anti-termite paints.
- Avoiding places having damp wood.
- Keeping a clean environment at home by ensuring safe disposal of sweets and food stuff.