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Copyright © 2001 by Ralph Robert Moore.
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swelling red bumps
june 9, 2001
In our front hallway, Mary and I have a black and white print from 1896 by the American artist Charles Dana Gibson, best known as the creator of the "Gibson Girl".
The print shows a forlorn couple, straight noses and high cheekbones, sitting on the sand, leaning against each other's shoulders, fully dressed, from ankles to Adam's apple, in the foreground of an inked-in beach.
The print is titled, The End of Summer.
Each vacation contains within it the seed of its own following Monday, to paraphrase Poe, and this past Sunday night, at once again a reasonable hour, Mary and I set our profiles down on our white pillows, to fall asleep back into our workaday world after a week off.
I woke up first, in the grayness of the two o'clock hour, to walls and silence, with an itch.
An itch on my left forearm.
I scratched it.
Settled my nose back down on my pillow.
Reached my right hand down in the darkness, fingernails scrabbling again, longer this time, feeling greater relief, greater irritation knowing as soon as I stopped the flurry, the itch would twang back.
Monday morning, after an unsettled night of waking up, dreaming, waking up, I pulled off my pajama top, looked at my left forearm.
Little red bumps rode up along the blue veins.
I recognized the bumps immediately.
Fire ant bites.
In Texas, fire ants are a real problem. Their mounds are in every backyard.
To look at a fire ant, it doesn't seem that scary. It's brown and small, but its bite is ten times bigger. What's worse-- and frequently dangerous-- is the ant's swarming habit. If you find a fire ant mound and brush a stick across its puckered top, thousands of angry ants immediately spill out, biting the air. The only defense is a fast retreat. Those who can't move quickly after inadvertently stepping on a mound -- toddlers, the elderly-- are quickly covered and stung to death. A single mound contains several hundred thousand ants.
My worse experience with fire ants occurred about five years ago, when we were mowing our front lawn, and I stooped over to pull out of the ground a green, floppy weed growing at the edge of our driveway. The weed came up quicker than I expected, so that the brown dirt on its roots was thrown onto my forearm. As soon as I saw the dirt was squirming, I slapped my other hand back and forth across, running through the garage to our utility room, where I unscrewed the blue cap on a white bottle of bleach, and poured it over the hundreds of swelling red bumps and little brown ants swinging from my skin by their forceps (this is not a recommendation that you use bleach to treat fire ant bites, which such treatment is "frowned upon" by most physicians, and considered possibly dangerous. However, by immediately pouring bleach over the bites I did escape the horrible itching fire ant bites produce, even though it took a couple of weeks for the crowded rows of red-raised bites on my forearm to shrink and, eventually, vanish. If you do use bleach, it should always be diluted with water. Most remedies suggest one part bleach to ten parts water).
We're back on my bed, Monday morning after vacation.
As often happens with fire ant bites, although some of them manifest immediately, others don't show up for a day or two. I've never understood why that should be, but it's always the case. I woke up with a line of bites on the inside of my left forearm, but by mid-morning I had them on my right forearm as well, then bejeweling the elbows of both, the most ecstatic to scratch, elevating you to a round world where all that exists are fingernails and ruby toxicity, then, Tuesday, in the middle of my chest, and late Tuesday, the worse, in crescent moons across my belly.
The itch produced by a fire ant bite is unbelievable. Way beyond mosquito. Each mean bite wiggles down through the epidermis, rooting along the electrical path, the very snap and tingle, of nerve endings.
I walked around the downstairs rooms of our house with my arms inflated out from my trunk, every single thought distracted by the constant yes/no decisions of to scratch or not to scratch.
Because once you do scratch a bump, although there's that temporary relief, that pure physical pleasure that bores right down to the bone, as soon as you remove your fingernails, the itch rises up again, a red tendril sprouting from your bite across the air of the room, spiraling atop the opposite-wall stereo speakers, until continuing to ignore the maddening elongation of each itch is unbearable.
But ignore it I did, dousing my arms and chest with bleach until I smelled like a swimming pool, lathering on thick coats of Gold Bond (which, in my experience, is the best over-the-counter topical treatment, with its cool, mentholated hum).
Even so, there were many inadvertent instances of "accidental scratching". The hem of my blue short sleeve shirt brushing over the red-raw suppurated tips of the bumps, my swollen forearm rubbing accidentally against the sharp-edged kitchen counter.
What's strange too about fire ant bites is that it's sometimes difficult to locate the source of each itch. I had several bites across my chest and shoulders, each a little crater radiating misery, but although I would experiment with scratching each small volcano, the specific itch I was trying to eradicate, by my unblemished left nipple, would remain radiating in my flesh between the skein of red bites, as though independent of an on/off switch.
Except for these occasional, desperate experiments, only once a day did I actually touch the hundred or so maddening bumps on my body, and that was when I showered.
Standing up in the tall, transparent cube of heat and mist, soaping my washcloth, I had to rub the rough nubble of the cloth over the clusters of bumps, to clean them. I cannot tell you the instant, intense physical gratification it gave me, after twenty-four hours of ache, to wash my forearms, scrubbing the raised texture of the wash cloth over the raw bites, feeling that terrible, multiple itch immediately sway away, feeling it swing back with an even fiercer wriggling, being able to push it away once more with another vigorous washcloth back-and-forth, even though I had, at some point, to drop the heavy wet cloth to my bare feet, bend my head, and let the dozens of itchings worm in again.
Mary, for her part, although she escaped the fire ants, unintentionally handled poison ivy, which at the time we thought was just a stretch of grapevine, scooping up the snipped lengths of hairy vine in her bare forearms, cut ends leaking onto her skin, dumping them into a garbage bag.
About the same time I started to get a fire ant itch, she got a poison ivy itch.
Thin rows of bubbled skin flowered around her forearms, each little wet pink sphere radiating itch.
She tried different salves, finally opting for Calamine lotion, a pale ointment she spread around her forearms up to mid-bicep, where it dried like white makeup, giving her the look of a Broadway actress backstage.
The itch is still with us, though we know from past Summers it will eventually fade. Soon, all that will be left will be little white pocks that will melt into pink skin. Soon, when we go to sleep, these ninety-degree nights, our hands will lie dreaming by our hips, opened, unsummoned.
Since writing this column, back in 2001, I've heard from a lot of people who have had to endure the same itching torment described above. It's obvious many of them found this page (perhaps you, too) while searching on the Internet for a cure to the agony caused by fire ants and poison ivy.
After I wrote this column, Mary in fact did find out how to get rid of her poison ivy itch, and it also worked on my fire ant itch. The cure is simple, it works, and it's free.
All you have to do is expose the affected area to hot water. For example, if you have fire ant bites on your forearm, turn on the tap until the water is as hot as you can reasonably stand, then hold your forearm under the hot water, letting the water play over the bites. If you have a poison ivy rash on your body, get the water in a shower as hot as you can bear, then step under the showerhead and let the hot water wash over the rash.
The effect is immediate. You'll stop itching. In fact, if your bites or rash extend over a large enough portion of your skin, you might even experience a physically pleasurable, knee-bending effect.
After a few hours, the itch is likely to return, in which case you should repeat the treatment. Keep repeating until there is no more itch. Do not scratch yourself at all during this time (if you feel the need to scratch, expose that area to hot water. If you're at a location where taking a shower is not practical, for example at work, run hot water over a paper towel, and press that against the itch).
Why does this cure work?
The itching is caused by histamines produced by the insect bite or poison ivy rash. Exposing the affected area to hot water draws the histamines to the surface of the skin, where they are washed away.
This treatment is much more effective than any ointment, prescription or over-the-counter.
Final piece of advice: Use hot water, not lukewarm water, but not water so hot you'll be scalded. I don't want anything bad to happen to my readers.
--RRM, September 22, 2003