Stingray stings can be painful but are avoidable and treatable

If you’ve had the unfortunate luck of getting stung by a stingray, it’s likely because you surprised it by stepping on it. The good news is that most stingray stings are avoidable and rarely do they inflict fatal blows.

Stingrays are bottom-dwelling sea creatures who easily conceal themselves, mostly by hiding underneath sand. Their bodies are flat and disk-like, and feature a long, whip-like tail that can grow 2.5 times their length. Stingrays are normally gentile, but when attacked the animal retaliates by lashing its tail at the offender, and the sting can be extremely painful.

Stingrays are harmless, unless you accidently step on them. Photo: Shutterstock
Stingrays are harmless, unless you accidently step on them. Photo: Shutterstock

How to avoid being stung

The easiest way to deal with stingrays is to just be aware of their location and take precautions to avoid the animals.

To stalk their prey, stingrays often bury themselves in the sand making it hard to see them. Most stingray stings occur when someone accidentally steps on the animal.

Shuffle your feet whenever you’re in shallow water to scare away any stingrays hiding in the area. In lieu of shuffling, you can also toss pebbles into the shallows.

The sting

Unfortunately, even despite your best efforts, you may still encounter a stingray and get stung.

Stingrays sting with the sharp barb found in a their tails that carries a protein-based venom. Venom enters through the wound, causing short-term but usually intense discomfort.

The good news is the pain caused by a sting is most extreme within the first 30 to 90 minutes. If you know the steps to treat it ahead of time, you’ll save yourself (or a friend) undue discomfort.

How to treat a Stingray sting

If you do get stung, your wound needs immediate attention.

If you’ve been stung on your chest or abdomen, seek help immediately. Otherwise, if you can manage, pull the barb (or any spiny feeling fragments) out while you’re still in salt water — it’ll help clean the wound. If it’s bleeding, apply a little pressure on the wound — this will also help aid in flushing the venom out.

Once the wound is free from debris, access how you’re feeling. If you’re exhibiting symptoms like tightness in the chest, swelling anywhere on the face, difficulty breathing, hives on your body and nausea — you’re having an allergic reaction and need immediate attention.

Stingrays are common in coastal tropical and subtropical marine waters. Photo: Shutterstock.
Stingrays are common in coastal tropical and subtropical marine waters. Photo: Shutterstock.

After you’ve taken a breath and the only reaction you’ve noted is some swelling in and around the wound, then apply pressure above the wound to ease the bleeding, locate a bucket and some of the hottest water you can manage.

A Stingray’s venom is heat labile, meaning hot water not only makes the pain go away but destroys the venom. Lifeguards use 110°F (37°C) water to treat stingray injuries. You might not have a thermometer at the ready so just continually rotate hot water every 10 minutes or so to keep the temperature up. How long to stay soaking will be determined by removing your foot from the water — if it still hurts, put it back in.

If you’re noticing some jelly-like ooze seeping from the wound, this is a good sign. The venom is finding its way out of your foot. After about 90 minutes you should be feeling better. At that point, if you can manage, slather on a topical antibiotic and wrap your foot in clean gauze. It’s a good idea to keep an eye on your foot over the next few hours for any sign of infection (redness, prolonged swelling). If you do notice infection symptoms find a doctor; you likely need an antibiotic.

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