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Marine Animal Sting Or Bite

Marine Animal Sting Or Bite


A sting or bite from any form of marine life, especially salt-water dwellers, may cause this injury.


What are the causes and risks of the injury?

Injury can be caused by bites or stings from many types of marine life, including a:
  • jellyfish (including the Portuguese Man-of-War)
  • stingray
  • stonefish
  • scorpion fish
  • catfish
  • lionfish
  • sea urchin
  • sea anemone
  • hydroid
  • moray eel
  • electric eel
  • shark
  • barracuda


What can be done to prevent the injury?

There are many ways to prevent getting a marine animal sting or bite. A person should:
  • wear protective clothing or water shoes
  • not run into the water or dive in head-first
  • supervise children when they enter the water
  • splash or shuffle the feet when entering the water to ward off stingrays
  • not touch unfamiliar marine animals no matter how attractive they are
  • not swim with open wounds
  • not wear bright, shiny clothing, jewelry, or equipment while swimming
It is safest to swim at patrolled beaches. If an injury does occur despite precautions, a lifeguard or ranger may be able to help.


How is the injury recognized?

Sudden pain is usually the first sign of a marine animal bite or sting. A swimmer may notice a jellyfish floating nearby, or feel a stingray or sea urchin beneath the foot.


What are the treatments for the injury?

Treatment varies depending on what caused the injury.
Jellyfish, hydroids and anemones have tentacles that stick to the skin. These should be removed. If possible, vinegar may be applied to inactivate the stinging cells, called nematocysts.
Once inactivated, the tentacles should be gently lifted from the skin. The sting site should then be washed with soap and water. Afterward, a hydrocortisone cream may be applied to the skin.
The venom of scorpion fish, lionfish, stonefish, catfish, stingrays, and sea urchins produce severe pain at the bite site. Because the venom is a protein that is broken down quickly by heat, the wound area should be immersed in water as hot as can be tolerated. The area should be left in the hot water for 60 to 90 minutes while the victim is transmitted to a medical facility.
Pieces of spines or fins are often left broken inside the skin during the sting. The person should remove these with a gloved hand. If they are unable to remove them, they should have a healthcare professional remove them with an instrument. The wound should be cleansed well with soap and water, and an antibiotic ointment applied.
Sharks, moray eels, and barracudas can injure the skin with their teeth. These animals do not have venom or poison. The wound should be cleansed with soap and water, and may need sutures. It should be examined to be sure that it is free of debris.
A person may be given:
  • a tetanus booster (using the DTaP vaccine) if he or she has not had one within the previous 3-5 years
  • antibiotics if infection is present
Pain can usually be controlled with acetaminophen (i.e., Tylenol) or ibuprofen (i.e., Advil, Motrin). Sometimes stronger pain medication is required.

Side Effects

What are the side effects of the treatments?

A tetanus shot may cause tenderness at the injection site.
Antibiotics may cause:
  • stomach upset
  • diarrhea
  • allergic reaction to the medication
Pain relievers may cause stomach upset.

After Treatment

What happens after treatment for the injury?

The injured person may feel pain for many hours after the sting or bite. The wound should be watched closely for signs of infection. Signs of infection include redness, swelling, drainage at the site, and a fever. These signs should be reported to a healthcare professional. Usually there are no long-term effects after a marine bite or sting. Occasionally a marine bite can cause death, especially with a Portuguese Man-of-War sting.


The Merck Manual of Medical Information : Home Edition, 1997

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