How to Prevent (And Treat) Stingray Stings

Courtesy of Ibrahim Rayyan/Unsplash

The warm days of summer are swiftly approaching, and summertime means several things. It means long days at the beach and nights spent under the stars, racing to the ice cream truck and eating watermelon on the curb, backyard BBQ’s and family camping trips … and (unfortunately for us coastal dwellers) it also means that it’s stingray season.

Here’s a guide to help keep you safe in the shallow, warm water this summer.

Where They Live

Stingrays, a group of cartilaginous fish closely related to sharks, can be found in tropical and subtropical oceans across the globe. Although found near the shoreline year-round, their preferred habitat is warm, shallow water. During the winter months, they typically venture off in search of warmer water, but when the water heats up in the summer, they flock to the coastline.

Why They Sting

Stingrays spend the majority of their life on the ocean floor, often covered by sand. Photo: Daniel Bettech/Unsplash Splash

Stingrays spend the majority of their lives on the ocean floor, partially covered by sand, hiding from predators and awaiting prey. Considered docile creatures by most experts, a stingray’s primary reaction to a threat is to simply swim away. However, when a ray is stepped on, it will act in self-defense by flipping up its venomous stinger and lashing it out at the intruder.

If You Get stung

Typically, stings occur on the legs or feet as a result of stepping on a ray. The stinger is located near the base of the tail and is hard and sharp with backward-facing barbs, making it difficult to remove. A sheath over the stinger encloses the venom glands.

When a person gets stung, they typically endure a cut or puncture wound but part of the sheath or spine can be left behind in the wound as well. Most cases are painful but are seldom fatal.

The pain will be severe and will set in immediately – it typically peaks in an hour or two but can last up to 48 hours. In addition to pain, the victim will likely be bleeding and may experience swelling, color change at the wound site, low blood pressure, sweating, nausea, dizziness, headache, and muscle cramps. More severe symptoms include seizures, paralysis, heart rhythm irregularities, and sometimes, death.

If you get stung, notify a lifeguard immediately. Photo: Thomas Grillmair/Unsplash Splash

How to Treat

Should you get stung, flush the wound while still in the water to remove spine and tissue fragments. Contrary to the popular folklore belief, rinsing the wound with saltwater is a far better way to prevent infection than urinating on it.

Carefully exit the water and use tweezers to remove obvious pieces of the spine – do not remove pieces from the victim’s neck, chest, or abdomen. Apply pressure to stop the bleeding but avoid tape or stitches.  

To help alleviate pain, soak the wound in the hottest water the person can tolerate (no longer than 90 minutes). Finally, clean the wound with soap and water and apply a dressing. If you are at a public beach, a lifeguard should be on duty and will be able to assist you with these steps.

If the situation is an emergency (such as a sting to the neck or chest), seek medical attention immediately. If the sting is on the foot or leg and there is no apparent allergic reaction, take care of the wound and then visit the emergency room or a doctor for a follow up. There, they will remove barb and spine remnants and may perform an X-Ray or CT scan, administer a tetanus shot, or prescribe a pain reliever. As the wound continues to heal, watch for signs of infection and seek medical attention as needed.

Preventative Measures

Doing the stingray shuffle is the best way to avoid being stung. Photo: Nirzar Pangark/ Unsplash Splash

Stingray stings are unfortunate and very uncomfortable, but oftentimes, are easy to avoid. Stingrays typically won’t sting unless they feel threatened, so the best way to avoid a sting is to do the famous “stingray shuffle.” Shuffle or drag your feet along the ocean floor. Doing so will scare the stingray away as opposed to surprising it. Remember, stingrays are not out to get you and if you leave them alone, they’ll likely return the favor.

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