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Home Remedies to Ease Pain of Fire Ant Stings

Making a paste of meat tenderizer and water to apply to the spot can ease the pain of fire ant stings quickly. Other remedies also help.

An insect sting can hurt like the dickens, whether the culprit is a bee, a yellow jacket or another type of wasp. Then there are fire ants. They are named for the burning sensation they cause when they sting. Any sting could trigger a dangerous reaction, and needs attention. But if the reaction is mainly pain, what do you do for fire ant stings?

Meat Tenderizer for Fire Ant Stings:

Q. My young daughter was stung on the hand by fire ants. Her hand began to swell. We called her pediatrician and he got us into his office right away to see the reaction for himself. It wasn’t affecting her respiration, so it was not an emergency.

He said:

“What is an insect sting but a protein byproduct? Make a paste of Adolph’s meat tenderizer and water and apply it to the sting. It tenderizes meat because it breaks down protein. Get the unseasoned kind. She’ll be fine.”

Since then, we have always kept some Adolph’s in the house and in our camping gear. We use it on bee stings as well as fire ant stings.

A. Meat tenderizers contain either bromelain (derived from pineapple) or papain (derived from papaya). Either enzyme breaks down protein.

We first stumbled upon using meat tenderizer against insect stings in JAMA (April 24, 1972). The author recommended mixing a quarter-teaspoonful or so with a teaspoonful of water.

Other Home Remedies for Fire Ant Stings:

Other readers have reported success treating fire ant stings with vinegar as well as meat tenderizer. Home remedies including witch hazel, dilute ammonia, castor oil or benzoyl peroxide (found in over-the-counter acne remedies) have been used against stings from other types of insects as well as fire ants.

Some people claim that putting a fresh-cut piece of onion on the fire ant sting also works well. This can be an effective remedy to soothe the pain of a wasp or yellow jacket sting.

Hot Water Can Help:

Recently, a reader reported success with ordinary hot water.

Q. While I was mowing the lawn, fire ants bit my leg. I ran to the bathroom and turned the hot water on as hot as I could stand it without burning. Within seconds of putting the leg under the tap, all traces of ant bites were gone, and I felt no discomfort. It seems the hot water deactivated the formic acid of ant bites. The key points: get the hot water on the bites quickly and don’t burn yourself. I also washed my leg with soap just to prevent infection.

A. Thank you for sharing your story. Hot water can ease the itch of poison ivy or mosquito bites as well. Anyone who tries this must take care not to burn their skin!

Rabbit Tobacco Offers Relief:

Q. I’ve read that rabbit tobacco (Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium) is good when used topically against blisters and bites. I’ve used it against fire ant bites.
The first time I tried this I was at camp and I stepped on a fire ant hill while barefoot. OUCH! The name fire ant is appropriate, because it felt like my foot was on fire. I had been bitten multiple times on my toes. The pain was super distracting and intense.

I put the rabbit tobacco on my toes and put my socks and boots back on. Within about 15 minutes, I had no pain. That was great, but even more astounding was I had no bumps, redness or blisters. Typically, a fire ant bite for me will hurt for hours, then welt, and will often result in a kind of boil. Rabbit tobacco saved me from all that.

A. Rabbit tobacco is a wild plant in the daisy family found in sandy areas throughout eastern North America. Some people call it sweet everlasting.

Other home remedies that readers have found helpful against fire ant bites include a paste of meat tenderizer and water. Others like vinegar, witch hazel or the acne remedy benzoyl peroxide. Simplest of all is rinsing the bite briefly under hot water, hot enough to hurt but not to burn. In contrast, some people find that applying ice can ease the sting. Since none of those were available at camp, we’re glad you were able to use the rabbit tobacco.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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