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"Ouch, I got Stung": What You Need to Know about Stingrays, Stings and Injuries

Officials are seeing the seasonal spike in stingray stings. After getting my first "sting" on Memorial Day, I looked into the cause, effect and treatment options. Read on and find out what you need to know before heading to the beach.

We've all heard it before, "Do the 'stingray shuffle'." Well, what happens if you do the shuffle but still get stung?

Like many of us who live in Pinellas County, I went to the beach on Memorial Day. I shuffled through the sand on St. Pete Beach, dipped my head in and floated around in shoulder deep water. "Ouch!" I yelped about two minutes later. I started swimming to shore and said to my husband, "Something bit me!". 

Once I made it to shore, I sat on the sand and found a very small, paper-cut looking "stab" or "bite" in between my two small toes on my right foot. It hurt, but it was bearable. But, after sitting in the shallow water for about 15 minutes, I felt the pain settling in. It felt like a shooting pain, moving up my foot: it was the venom. I gathered that the "wound" shouldn't hurt that bad if I stepped on a shell. About 15 minutes after that, my husband and I were in the truck headed to the emergency room at the .

Let's just say that the pain increased, to the point of tears and minor yelps in the truck. By the time we made it to the ER, it was about 45 minutes after the initial "sting". The pain increased significantly and I needed a wheelchair to make it inside. As soon as I checked in, the ER nurse had a bucket of hot water. I tested it first, and then put my foot in. Within minutes the pain decreased. It still hurt, but it felt better. During my treatment, the ER doctor confirmed it was a sting, had my foot x-rayed and recommended a Tetanus shot. I left about and hour later, went home and continued to soak my foot. In all, I soaked my foot for about 3 to 4 hours. It's day five and my foot is fine!

Here is what you need to know before heading to the beach:

  • Do the stingray shuffle: When getting into the water, shuffle your feet forward, one at a time. Do not step or stomp down into the sand. By shuffling your feet, you create vibrations and kick up sand to alert nearby stingrays that you are there.
  • You can go one step further and use a stick to poke around you and help scare away stingrays. 
  • Stingrays usually travel together. If you see one, there may be several in the area.
  • Stingrays are not aggressive. They sting because they feel threatened, it's a defensive maneuver. Most injuries are minor.
  • When stung, the stingrays inject a protein-based venom that will cause pain near the wound. While it can be very painful, it's rarely deadly. The toxicity of the venom does not vary for age. "The venom is the same from birth to death," Lt. Bill Gorham with thesaid.

Gorham says this season is pretty average, however, because of a cold winter, the normal late April/early May spike in stings has been "pushed back" to late May/early June. "They're showing up now," he said. "When the mating season is over, April seems to be the time when the babies are up towards the shore.”

Emergency Room staff at Palms of Pasadena Hospital say they're seeing an increase in stings this season. Palms of Pasadena Hospital EMT Brian Jollimore says, "We seem to be having an active season." The hospital does not track injuries by "stings" only listed by "puncture" or "laceration", so there aren't any hard numbers.

How do you know if you've been stung?:

  • If you step on or alarm a stingray, they whip their tail around their body and a stinger lashes out and cuts or pierces you. The stinger then injects a venom. 
  • Officials say the pain from the venom increases about 30 minutes after the sting and it peaks around one hour from venom injection. You may feel shooting pain.
  • Other symptoms include: swelling, bleeding at point of injury, headache, nausea, vomiting and weakness.
  • If the stinger breaks off, you will feel more pain from the "object", that will have to be removed by medical staff.

Lt. Gorham says, “I’ve been here at the beach for 13 plus years, I have yet to run on a stingray call where a barb has broken off."

What to do if your stung:

  • Remove any clothing from the affected area.
  • Do not put ice on the wound. Lt. Gorham says the venom injected by the animal is a "heat-seeking" toxin. Meaning, it originates from the wound and moves up your body towards areas of heat, such as your abdomen and stomach. If you put ice on the wound, it only causes the venom to circulate faster.
  • Treat the wound by placing your foot or leg in a bucket of very warm or hot water. Gorham says the water will draw the venom out of your body and alleviate the pain. It's suggested to leave your foot in hot or very warm water for at least one to three hours. Lt. Gorham says many of the hotels and concession stands are understanding and will help if you approach them. Otherwise, you may go straight to an emergency room or hospital and seek medical attention. If you don't seek medical attention right away, you should still see have the wound checked out by a doctor soon after the sting.
  • Once you've made it to a hospital or emergency room, officials will take an X-ray of the wound to make sure the barb or shards of the barb are not stuck. EMT Jollimore says the main concerns with the actual puncture with the barb are: infection, hitting a vein, having the barb or pieces in your foot. 
  • If you are not up-to-date on your tetanus vaccination, you may need a shot. The vaccine will prevent tetanus infection.

Lt. Gorham says, "It’s a very clean process, the problem with infection comes from the water. . . It’s a steril transition between you and the stringray."

Can people die from venom alone? 

EMT Jollimore says "yes". If a person has an allergic reaction to the venom and does not seek medical attention right away. Symptoms include: drop in blood pressure, swelling and shortness of breath. Jollimore adds that if you think you're having an allergic reaction, leave the water immediately. If you pass out in the water, there is a chance you could drown.

Jennifer S June 04, 2011 at 01:28 PM
Very informative! I never knew a stingrays venom was heat seeking.

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