Imported Fire Ants the Cause of Death in Texas By Maggie Lawrence, Auburn University
The biting, stinging fire ant is a nuisance most people are far too familiar with, but few recognize the life-threatening danger these small pests pack in their punch.
Recently, a Texas teen died after numerous fire ant stings during a junior high football game in Corpus Christi. Allergic reactions to fire ant bites are rare, but require quick thinking and proactive first aid work.
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service Program Specialist, Janet Hurley, works with Texas schools to implement Integrated Pest Management practices on school campuses. She says that fire ant mounds aren’t always visible on the surface, so extra caution should be taken to ensure safety at outdoor events. Weather also plays a role in their elusive behavior. In droughts, fire ants dwell below the surface. When moisture returns, fire ants move up to keep from drowning.
“What I would like for people to understand is that fire ants are a stinging pest,” Hurley says. “There are treatment options available, but it is not a one shot and we are done situation when it comes to fire ant treatments.”
More than one fire ant sting can result in serious medical problems, even in people with normal immune systems. While most people can tolerate stings, severe allergic reaction occurs in less than one percent of the human population. Most people are unaware of their allergy until they are stung for the first time.
“The low percentage seems a joke until your child, spouse, or parent suffers from a severe reaction,” Hurley says. “Allergic reactions don’t have to start in early childhood, it can happen later in life. We have seen reactions in the elderly as well.”
Dr. Bart Drees, a retired Extension entomologist at Texas A & M University says recognizing the threat of allergic reaction to fire ant stings is the first step in avoiding them.
“The very young, very old and those with compromised immune systems are a major concern,” Drees says. “Teaching children to recognize and avoid fire ants and fire ant mounds is the best course of action to prevent undesirable and tragic incidents from happening.”
For more information about fire ant stings and how to treat them, read Fire Ant Stings on eXtension. To learn more about treating anaphylactic shock and first aid in an emergency situation click here. To learn more about fire ant lifecycles and biology click here.
Fire Ant Sting Information
People’s sensitivity to fire ant stings varies greatly. Some individuals may experience only very mild discomfort. Others may be hypersensitive to venom or may have medical conditions (e.g., heart condition, diabetes) that can result in serious medical problems or even death from a single sting.
Treating Fire Ant Stings
Remove fire ants by rubbing them off briskly by hand or with a cloth. Pouring water over the ants or jumping into water is not an effective way to remove them. Fire ants use their jaws to hold on before they actually sting so they are fixed tightly to skin and clothing.
Localized skin reaction to venom
The sting site will hurt for a few minutes and will redden. Next, the area swells into a bump within 20 minutes. Within several hours to a day, most people develop a white fluid-filled pustule that is highly characteristic of imported fire ant stings. For most people, the pustule dries up in several weeks.
Treatment for minor stinging incidents
For minor stings with only pain and pustules, treat with over-the-counter products that relieve pain and prevent infection. Swelling that spreads from the stung area does sometimes occur. Large local reactions should be treated with local application of ice. For more information, consult your doctor or pharmacist.
Whole body reactions
There are a number of symptoms of an anaphylactic reaction to fire ant stings. These symptoms appear rapidly after the person is stung.
- Difficulty breathing
- Swelling of the face, lips or throat
- Severe chest pain
- Severe sweating
- Slurred speech
Individuals with a history of severe allergic reactions to insect bites or stings should consider carrying an epinephrine auto injector (EpiPen) and should wear a medical identification bracelet or necklace stating their allergy.
Individuals should take the following steps if they are stung or bitten by fire ants:
- Rub off ants briskly, as they will attach to the skin with their jaws.
- Antihistamines may help.
- Follow directions on packaging.
- Drowsiness may occur.
- Seek an emergency medical facility immediately if a sting causes severe chest pain, nausea, severe sweating, loss of breath, serious swelling, or slurred speech. Anaphylactic shock can lead to death.
For more information about fire ants and other stinging pest first aid, please visit the CDC website at http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/insects/#overview
Mosquito Control and the TX School IPM Program
The most important single thing a school district can do is make sure school grounds are not contributing to your local mosquito populations. Check water catchment basins, storm drains, low areas, and equipment storage yards, athletic and playground equipment, especially, for places where water might be caught and held. Drain or treat with Bt dunks, or Altosid granules–both Green category insecticides.
Mosquitoes typically rest in vegetation or other shaded sites during the day. If you have areas of vegetation or doorways where mosquitoes are a noticeable problem, consider treating such sites with a residual pyrethroid spray. This would be a Yellow category treatment and should be limited to known problem areas. Insecticides like deltamethrin, cyfluthrin, bifenthrin, and lambda-cyhalothrin can provide up to six weeks control on vegetation or building surfaces. They can be applied via hand-held pump sprayer, backpack mist blower, or power sprayer to doorways and trees, shrubs and ornamental grass around buildings and entryways. Do not allow students or staff into treated areas until sprays have thoroughly dried. Remember students cannot enter an area that has been treated with a Yellow Category product for 4 hours.
If the city or your district wants to apply ULV insecticides for pretreating sporting venues, posting and notification requirements must be followed and Yellow category justifications filed, as with any use of Yellow category product. ULV treatments usually use synergized pyrethrins (Green for products with less than 5% piperonyl butoxide), resmethrin or permethrin (Yellow). Mosquito control with such sprays is short-lived (few hours to a day) and should be conducted only when wind is less than 5-10 mph.
When it comes to IPM for mosquitoes, don’t forget educating students, parents and staff. The district should consider notifying parents and students advising them to wear repellent to school or evening sporting events. Use of repellents on school grounds is something each school district must decide on. Personal use of repellents is not prohibited or really addressed by state school IPM regulations; however, they are addressed through the Department of State Health Services who considers repellents as part of an over the counter medication. If you have done so, visit with your district’s head nurse make sure she/he is aware of your IPM program and the efforts you, your staff and your pest control contractor are doing everything they can do to help prevent mosquitoes. The Texas Department of State Health Services and many local mosquito control authorities have useful educational fliers and websites (see below) that parents should be aware of. School districts have a useful role to play in getting mosquito awareness information out to our communities. Consider linking this information in your school district’s website.
Some quick facts about mosquito life cycle, breeding, and water sources:
- Once mosquitoes find a suitably polluted puddle of water, they lay eggs. Eggs take about a day to hatch and the larvae 5-8 days at 30 degrees C (86 deg F). Once they pupate it’s another 36 hours before the adult emerges. So its 10-14 days typically for development. Standing water must remain for about that length of time before it is likely to breed mosquitoes.
- Clean water is not so much an issue, but if rain water is mixed with leaves and/or soil and sits in the sun for a week or so, it gets pretty attractive for mosquitoes. In addition, water where fish are present, such as a pond or permanent stream is not usually a big source of mosquitoes.
Remember the 4 D’s
- DUSK/DAWN- Stay indoors at Dusk/Dawn. This is the time of day that mosquitoes are most active.
- DEET-Use insect repellents that contain Deet when going outside, especially at times closer to dawn or dusk when mosquitoes are most active.
- DRAIN – Remove all areas of standing water. Examples are pet dishes, birdbaths, and water dishes under potted plants. Repair faulty French drains. Remove debris from rain gutters. Mosquitoes will breed in this debris since it is normally damp under the debris. Remove all piles of dead leaf material from under trees and shrubs. This also is a breeding site.
- DRESS– Avoid being bitten by mosquitoes by wearing light colored long sleeved shirts and long pants when going outside.
The Dept. of State Health services has been sending out emails to school nurses and administrators. However, at AgriLife Extension we are also providing you this information to ensure everyone knows what you can do.
Need a mosquito management plan – check out this link eXtension mosquito plan
Need a poster, flyer, or other information to hand out to teachers, parents or students, including a sample letter you can send home to parents – check out our link http://schoolipm.tamu.edu/forms/public-health-pests-information-resources/
Need additional information about West Nile Virus or other infectious diseases – check out the Dept. of State Health Services website at http://www.dshs.state.tx.us/idcu/disease/arboviral/westnile/information/special/schools/default.asp
Dr. Mike Merchant has a couple of very good YouTube videos on mosquito prevention and control – talk to your IT department about allowing you to view these very short informative videos. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YEqv3h03cSY&feature=bf_prev&list=PL601F08778CC0167C
For Frequently Asked Questions about aerial spraying for mosquitoes, see http://citybugs.tamu.edu/2012/08/14/faqs-about-aerial-spraying/
Mosquito Safari is an Extension website with general information about mosquito identification, biology and control, including an interactive tour of common mosquito breeding sites, great site to share with teachers, parents and students. http://mosquitosafari.tamu.edu/index.swf