The oddly adorable stingray is misunderstood by so many. Fear has been instilled in people since the tragic death of Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin in 2006, but it is actually rare to die from a ray injury. At the most, especially at Southern California beaches, it is common to see and hear about swimmers getting stung by a stingray prompting lifeguard response.
Stingrays are not aggressive! They are curious and playful animals when there are divers and snorkellers around, and if they feel threatened their first instinct is to swim away. In fact we tell swimmers that they want nothing to do with people.
But as with all marine life, people must respect stingrays’ personal space. So take lots of photos and enjoy watching them gliding through the water at a local aquarium – but from afar. Never threaten or corner a ray in the water, and always keep an eye out for their tail – and never touch the barb on the end of it.
Summertime beach walk on your mind? On your next stroll be careful of rays feeding and resting in warm shallow waters. If you accidentally step on a ray, the frightened fish can flip up its tail and sting you with its barb. Again this is very common.
So keep your eyes peeled or try the stingray shuffle. Place your feet firmly on the ground and slide your feet slowly through the sand, which will safely encourage any rays to move away. The stingray will sense the movement of the sand and most likely scoot along.
If a stingray does accidentally sting you, there are first aid procedures you should follow or better yet, notify the nearest lifeguard. They will most likely dispatch an EMS unit to assist with the sting.
Stingrays are bottom dwellers found partially buried in shallow sandy waters during the temperate summer months. They are flat fish with eyes and nostrils on the top side of their bodies and their mouths and gills are on the under-side.
The stingray’s defense mechanism is camouflage, but if stepped on, it will sting. The stinging mechanism is composed of the tail, one or more barbed spines on the tail, and the venom on the spine. When the stingray is at rest the spine is flat against the tail.
The spine is 1 to 1.5 inches long and made of a hard tooth like material. The spine has many small barbs or serrations like small fish hooks going opposite the direction of the point of the spine. The spine is housed in a thin sheath which encases a mixture of venom and mucus.
SEVEN AWESOME FACTS ABOUT STINGRAYS
- The largest species of stingray measure up to 6.5 feet in length and weigh up to 790 pounds
- Stingrays are closely related to sharks
- Their long tails usually have a spine and venom
- Stingrays eat clams, mussels and shrimp
- Stingrays don’t use their eyes to find prey
- Stingrays are solitary but can also live in groups
- Stingrays give birth each year
FIRST AID FOR STINGRAY
So what happens when you get stung by a stingray? The first obvious sign may be bleeding from your foot or ankle. We are commonly summoned by swimmers when they exit the water only to see the bloody wound. Many will automatically assume they were stung and most of them are correct.
If you’re stung by a stingray, you may experience these symptoms however it is rare to experience the worst of these symptoms:
- abdominal pain
- extreme pain at the wound site
- low blood pressure
- muscle cramps
- necrosis (death) of surrounding tissue
- pain in the extremities
- painful, swollen lymph nodes near the site
- skin discoloration
The following symptoms could be signs of a systemic reaction or respiratory distress and require immediate emergency medical care:
- irregular heartbeat
- muscle paralysis
- shortness of breath
So what first aid is required for the sting?
The best course of action is to notify a lifeguard!
When stung by a stingray, you’ll feel immediate, severe pain at the wound site and you will see bleeding at the site. You need to begin treating the wound right away if it’s superficial. The pain has been described as worst than childbirth and we have seen rough, gruff bikers squeal like sissy girls as a result of a sting. The pain may not be felt at first however the pain will escalate over minutes.
Pay close attention to how you feel in the sting’s aftermath. It’s possible to have a life-threatening allergic reaction to stingray venom, which requires emergency medical care. Expect the area to swell.
Hot water kills stingray venom by breaking down the proteins and may relieve the pain associated with the sting. Once you’ve determined you’re not having an allergic reaction, you might want to soak the sting in hot water
The ideal temperature for a soak is 110°F to 115°F (43°C to 46°C). Reheat your water every 10 minutes to keep it continually hot, and soak the wound for 30 to 90 minutes, or as long as it takes for the pain to subside. Sometimes it will take up to two hours for the pain to subside. The hot water may also draw out venom, which resembles jelly.
Once you’ve relieved the pain, apply antibiotic ointment or cream to the wound and cover it with gauze.
If you do seek emergency medical care, your healthcare providers will closely inspect your wound. They will need to remove any debris left in the wound from the spines or the sheath. They may take X-rays of the sting site to determine whether all the debris has been cleared. Spine and sheath fragments are visible on an X-ray.
You might receive an antibiotic via prescription or IV, as well as stitches if the wound is large or deep. You may also receive a tetanus booster.
In some cases, you might require surgery after a stingray sting to remove dead tissue or to repair a severe wound.
For most people, stingray stings heal within a few weeks. Expect localized numbness and tingling around the wound site during the healing period.
Location of the sting, amount of venom in the tissue, extent of tissue damage, and promptness of treatment will affect healing time. If you have to undergo surgery after the sting, your recovery will take more time.