Stingrays, common in coastal waters, are distinctively flattened fish with whip-like stinging tails that deliver a toxic venom.
Australian environmentalist and TV personality Steve Irwin, the 'Crocodile Hunter', died off the Great Barrier Reef when a stingray stung him through the chest wall.
What makes stingrays attack?
Stingrays feed off small marine creatures, and do not attack humans unless provoked. They will generally swim out of your way if you encounter them. However, if they feel threatened, they will sting.
They inhabit warmer coastal waters in many parts of the world, where they peaceably swim along close to the sandy ocean floor. They also like to burrow into the sand, which they are camouflaged to match, often leaving just their eyes showing. This unfortunately makes them hard to see; most attacks occur when people stand on stingrays by accident, and most injuries are to the foot or leg.
What happens when you get stung?
When a stingray attacks, its tail whips up and jabs the barbed stinger into its target, in humans usually causing a deep wound on entry, and often tearing the flesh as the stinger is pulled out. Bleeding may be considerable if the barbs sever an artery.
The stinger (in most cases) then injects toxin into the wound, resulting in a sudden, intense pain, and swelling.
The pain of a stingray sting can be accompanied by other symptoms, such as fainting, nausea, sweating, diarrhoea, cramps and muscle contractions.
Very rarely, a sting can prove fatal, for example where the stinger punctures the chest, as happened in Irwin's case. Medical experts have suggested the stinger penetrating Irwin's heart was the most likely cause of death - not the toxin.
In the great majority of cases, however, the outcome is good: the pain diminishes within a couple of days, and the wound heals after about a fortnight.
Dealing with stings
First aid treatment involves placing the stung area in hot water - as hot as the patient can bear - or using a hot pack. The heat helps to ease the pain, probably by deactivating the toxin.
It's important to see a doctor if you've been stung; you may need antibiotics, painkillers or a tetanus shot, and to have the wound cleaned of any dirt and debris. If pieces of the stinger are left in the wound, they can cause infection.
If you show any systemic effects (i.e. any symptoms that affect the rest of the body, not just the sting site), then you should get immediate medical attention.
Doing the ‘stingray shuffle’
Always do your homework about the potential dangers when visiting a new coastal area.
If stingrays are known to occur there, then it’s a good idea to practice the ‘stingray shuffle’: as you enter shallow water, shuffle your feet as though you’re sliding in socks on a shiny surface. This creates turbulence and gives the stingrays due warning that they should high-tail it out of there.
Wearing protective footgear and wetsuits also helps prevent stings, as well as other minor abrasions.
- Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth expert, Health24, September 2006
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Additional information sources:
Perkins RA, Morgan SS. Poisoning, envenomation, and trauma from marine creatures. American Family Physician February 2004.