The Full Story
The stingray has a fierce reputation and is best known for its infamous tail – long, thin, and whip-like with one to three barbed venomous spinal blades. In Greek mythology, Odysseus was killed when his son Telegonus unintentionally stabbed him using a spear tipped with the spine of a stingray. In 2006, television personality and animal activist Steve Irwin, best known as The Crocodile Hunter, died after being pierced in his chest by a stingray. Stingrays pose a threat to fishermen and beachgoers. Every year, about 1,500-2,000 stingray injuries are reported in the US.
Contrary to its reputation, the stingray is a shy and even gentle creature that would rather swim away than strike. It reserves its stinger for its predators – sharks and other large carnivorous fish. It attacks people only when it feels directly threatened, often when it's unintentionally stepped on.
Stingrays are flat and can vary in size from several inches to 6.5 ft. in length and weigh up to 800 lbs. Their wing-like fins create ripples in the water as they swim. There are 11 species of stingrays found in the coastal waters of the US. Their flat bodies and gray color allow them to be camouflaged on the sea floor, where they move slowly to forage for their prey (small fish and crustaceans like crabs and sea snails). Interestingly, a stingray cannot see its prey because its eyes are on the upper side of its body, while its mouth and nostrils are on the underside.
The dangerous part of a stingray is its infamous tail. The spinal blade is also known as the stinger or barb. This stinger is covered with rows of sharp spines made of cartilage and is strong enough to pierce through the skin of an attacker. Not only does the puncture itself cause injury and pain, but the stinger also releases a complex venom, which leads to intense pain at the puncture site. Uncommon effects of the venom include headaches, nausea and vomiting, fainting, low blood pressure, arrhythmias of the heart, and even seizures.
The most common sites of human envenomation are the legs and feet, which makes sense because the most common reason for envenomation is a swimmer unintentionally stepping on a stingray. The envenomation is often limited to severe pain that is relieved when the area is submerged in hot water. However, complications such as infection, serious bleeding, or physical trauma can occur. Part of the spine can also remain embedded in the tissue and require medical intervention to remove it. Death is extremely rare and results not from the venom but from the puncture wound itself if it is in the chest, abdomen, or neck. Death from serious infections like tetanus has also been reported.
Treatment of stingray injuries starts with first aid. Because the puncture is often deep and considered dirty, there is high risk of infection. It's important to wash and disinfect the area immediately and obtain a tetanus vaccine or booster if needed. The wound should be inspected for any retained spines. The standard treatment for the pain is hot water immersion. Medical evaluation and treatment in a hospital is necessary if there are any retained spines in the wound, if the puncture is deep, or if it involves the chest, abdomen, or neck.
The best way to prevent being stung by a stingray is to avoid stepping on it when in the ocean by shuffling through the sand rather than lifting your feet and walking normally (commonly referred to as the "stingray shuffle"). This will warn a stingray of your approach, and it will likely swim away. A pole or stick can also be used ahead of your feet. Divers should be cautious and avoid swimming close to the sea floor. It is also important to know where stingrays are and never provoke them.
If you have a stingray injury, check the webPOISONCONTROL® online tool for guidance or call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222.
Serkalem Mekonnen, RN, BSN, MPH
Certified Specialist in Poison Information
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