Fire ants are a variety of stinging insect common in the southeastern United States—and some experts estimate that up to 16 percent of Americans stung by a fire ant suffer severe allergic reactions. But most people who know they're allergic don't adhere to therapy that might prevent a life-threatening reaction, says a new study.

Fire Ants Image

People can build up immunity to the fire ant's sting with immunotherapy, or allergy shots. But the shots require commitment: You typically need to get them monthly over the course of three to five years before your reaction can be successfully modified.

But the alternative—forgoing the shots and risking a reaction—can have consequences ranging from pesky to dire. Reactions include

  • hives
  • itching and swelling
  • nausea, vomiting and diarrhea
  • anaphylaxis, which can include tightness in the chest, difficulty breathing, weakness and cardiac arrest.

And every time you're bitten, your reaction will likely be worse than the time before. The study asked 76 people with fire-ant allergies to follow a monthly prophylactic injection schedule. A year later, only 35 percent of the participants were still getting their shots. When asked why they stopped, most blamed inconvenience or needle phobia.

If you're allergic, carry an epinephrine pen with you, wear gloves when doing yard work and don't wear sandals or walk barefoot outside—ants will swarm and sting your foot when you step on their anthill.

Source: Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, vol. 110, p. 165; Prepared by the Editors of The Johns Hopkins Medical Letter: Health After 50

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 29 Jul 2013

Last Modified: 21 Oct 2014