The People's Perspective on Medicine

Vinegar Stars as Surprising Antidote to Sting of Fire Ants

One reader shares a favorite home remedy (white vinegar) to deal with the uncomfortable sting from the bites of fire ants.
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Fire ants are an invasive species in the southern United States, gradually making their way northward. These aggressive ants live in colonies and they have a ferocious and painful sting that feels like a burn. Is there any way to ease the pain?

Easing the Pain of Fire Ant Stings:

Q. My home town is in extreme drought and about the only thing growing now are weeds. They were getting pretty tall, so I decided to mow. When I stopped to pick up a limb, I felt hot stinging and looked at my hand to see fire ants on it.

I brushed them off and went inside to find something to treat them. The stings make me itch and burn; they create white pimple-like pustules and red swollen areas.

I reached for the spray bottle of vinegar I keep in my kitchen for cleaning and disinfecting. I sprayed my hand and left the spray on the skin. In a few seconds the burning stopped, then the itching. I had a little redness but pustules never did form.

This is the fastest and best remedy I’ve ever found for fire ant bites.

Beware Allergic Reactions to Fire Ants:

A. Thanks for sharing your success. We didn’t know that vinegar (acetic acid) could overcome the venom of fire ants (Solenopsis invicta). A recent study showed that crazy ants (Nylanderia fulva) use formic acid they produce themselves to detoxify fire ant venom when the two groups fight each other (Science, Feb. 28, 2014).

Other readers report success against fire ant bites with topical witch hazel, the OTC acne drug benzoyl peroxide, Vicks VapoRub, castor oil or a cut onion. Keep in mind that some people react to fire ant stings with a severe allergic reaction that can even proceed to anaphylaxis. Those individuals need immediate emergency attention if they are stung.

Revised 8-8-16

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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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    My remedy for chiggers and fire ants came from a local in South Carolina where I used to work in the coastal plain as a forester. For large numbers of bites run a cold bath about 5 inches deep and pour in a 1/4 cup of Clorox, and sit in the bath for 15 minutes. This does a great job of reducing infection. Early in my career I had a massive number of chigger bites on my legs. Scratching was impossible to avoid. Then I was told by an “old hand” what to do.

    The need to scratch was lessened as I controlled the infection so I did this tub treatment 1-2 times per day. Soon the bites dried up. It often took 3-4 weeks to get past even a few bites. I learned fast how to avoid being bitten. 1) understand the area. 2) apply DEET prior to putting pants on. 3) Wear insect shield or put DEET on pants, long sleeve shirt, and neck. Some areas had fire ants, chiggers, cow-killer ground bees, wasps, no-seeums, mosquitoes, hornets, and water moccasins.

    One of the worst sites I ever worked on had (get this) 1 fire ant mound per square foot! No kidding.

    I noticed large containers of vinegar placed along the beaches in Queensland in Australia during jelly fish season when the highly venomous box jellyfish are near the shore.

    I have walked on a fire ant mound and used straight bleach to kill the sting. Also did not get the pustules. Glad to know about vinegar.

    You have to act quickly, the faster the better. Run the very hottest water that you can bear, on the bite or bites for several minutes. Something happens to the histamine reaction which is completely de-activated. You may or may not get a blister but will feel nothing at the site at all. On one occasion, I even ran into a hairdresser’s in a small rural town where there were no public restrooms and asked if I could stick my foot in their restroom sink. They thought me crazy but it worked, I have never known it not to work.

    We were taught to make a paste of baking soda and water and put on any sting, ant, bee, jellyfish, even put some on a scorpion sting once. Leave it on until it dries and flakes off. It does work. I have used vinegar on a jellyfish sting and that worked too. Just don’t mix the vinegar with baking soda or you’ll get the volcano effect, kinda messy for the kitchen.
    One thing with ant bites, if the pustule forms it will continue to itch. Clean the area, bust the pustule then apply antibiotic cream or my preference Campho Phenique, it will stop the itch and heal quicker.

    If you are allergic to stings and bites you can try all of the above suggestions but I would urge you to do this on your way to the ER as one can have severe reactions to a single fire ant bite. I know as I’ve been there several times.

    We have used vinegar for several years for fire ant bites with great success. When applied it stops the sting instantly, itching takes about a minute or so to subside. We use cider vinegar with the ‘Mother’ which seems to work perfectly but will try white vinegar next time to compare results.

    Urine also works.

    I use white vinegar all the time as well but not so much for constant clean up as I think it might have eaten our iron pipes out a bit early. I do use tea tree oil as a soother to bites and I keep real aloe vera for burns which seems to really work as well but only fresh right off the plant.

    Vinegar for everything. Last week it was a deodorant, now it’s for stings. I use it in the kitchen to soak produce. You should see the sand that comes off! (Be sure and rinse them off after the soak. In the bathroom I use it for a quick clean up of the sink from soap or toothpaste film. All this is with white vinegar. At the first sign of a cold we gargle with a 50/50 solution of cider vinegar & water, then swab our nostrils. A bit nasty, but it sure prevents colds and other bugs.

    VINEGAR is an EXCELLENT WEED KILLER. It’s non-selective, however, and it stays in the ground thereby keeping the weeds (well, anything, really) from regrowing. I pour it on straight, undiluted, from a sprinkling can. Everything turns brown in 24-48 hours. Besides not contaminating the water table, it doesn’t cause birth defects, so I’m told. After one generous application in Spring, our gravel driveway has been weed free for the rest of the summer. Did I mention it’s lots cheaper than commercial weed killers?

    On the beach at Ziahuataneo, Mexico, I was enjoying standing in the warm water with my snorkel looking underwater, when a clear jellyfish attached itself to my forearm and bit me. I shook my arm violently, screamed, and ran back to my husband sitting under our palapa on the beach. A young local man ran over and said to put lime juice on it. We always carried limes from our tree to put on fruit and food to help avoid getting sick when traveling, so I grabbed a cut lime and squeezed it on the bite wound, then laid it on top. The pain went away immediately! I was so glad we had a bite remedy right in our insulated lunch carrier!

    I live in Florida on 5 acres. They made my life miserable until I discovered a solution that not only stops the sting but keeps them from making the awful red bumps. Deodorant with Aluminum in it. I kept a container outside to grab at the first sign of trouble. It also helps with mosquitoes and bee stings.

    As crazy as this may sound use the hair dryer on the hottest setting for a few minutes and it works on fire ants immediately

    This is very useful information. My mother-in-law was bitten many times by fire ants, and didn’t know what to do. She was in severe pain and had intense itching from the many bites on the lower half of her body.

    I posted the initial topic. I use regular white vinegar in the spray bottle. As I stated, it’s great for cleaning countertops, stove tops, etc. My son was bitten by jellyfish as a young boy when we were at a Corpus Christi beach. I forget what the medic at the beach put on it, but I don’t think it was vinegar. I’ll try vinegar on any sting now, as bee and wasp stings really affect me. I’ve tried only a few of the above mentioned remedies for fire ant bites, but still had some pustules or redness for a day or so. But I was very surprised and pleased at the results of the vinegar.

    I was raised in Texas, and have had to deal with fire ants most of my adult life. Back in the early 80’s a toddler that a friend was watching got into an fire ant mound, and was covered head to toe with fire ants. We brushed them off, and I suggested to the friend to douse the child with vinegar. She grabbed her vinegar, held the child under the sink and poured the quart of vinegar all over the child. He immediately stopped crying, and within 5 minutes all the redness went away. When the mother came to pick up the child, you could not tell he was even bit. My friend did tell the mother about the incident, and was told the next day that the child never had a pustule come up. I now keep vinegar around just in case I get stung by one.

    I also use vinegar on fire ant stings – it works very well to stop the stinging and prevent pustules!

    What has worked for me in the past is a paste of water and meat tenderizer. However that left a gritty surface, until it was washed off. I like this solution better.

    Completely agree. High heat completely destroys the histamine reaction immediately.

    Also have been using WITCH HAZEL for mannny years for all kinds of bites, stings, bruises, sprains etc.
    Works quickly. Also for best results apply as soon as possible.

    what kind of vinegar?
    is it also good for jellyfish stings?

    Yes. I always carry a bottle of plain white vinegar when we go to he beach. It also helps to sooth sun burn.

    Use ammonia on jelly fish stings, but be wary of the fumes. You may want to cover your nose, mouth, and even eyes after hold your breath to apply it. Affect differs widely between individuals. If Ammonia is not convenient, urine works. Where it comes from and method of application are your own business.

    White vinegar, as was stated above, “One reader shares a favorite home remedy (white vinegar) to deal with the uncomfortable sting from the bites of fire ants.”

    A paste of regular table salt mixed with water and applied to ant bites will immediately take away the sting.

    * Be nice, and don't over share. View comment policy^