There’s something about that viciously efficient combination of grasping pincers and curved sting that sparks terror in the human brain. But as long as you apply a smidgen of common sense, the chances of getting fatally stung by a scorpion in Southern Africa are in fact very low.
South Africa has quite a few scorpion species, but luckily for those of us who like the bundu and can’t resist turning over rocks, not many of our scorpions are highly venomous, and the risk of a fatal sting is slim. In the great majority of cases, stings cause pain that lasts no more than a few hours, with no further symptoms. The annual death rate from stings is only about one to four.
The sting’s the thing
Scorpions with broad pincers often look fearsome, but the pincers are just for grabbing; the sting’s in the tail. There’s a general rule of thumb to distinguish highly venomous scorpions from the mildly venomous (i.e. harmless to humans):
Highly venomous: thick tails, thin pincers
Mildly venomous: thin tails, thick pincers
This rule applies to scorpions throughout the world.
In South Africa, it’s almost always scorpions belonging to the genus Parabuthus that cause fatalities. These scorpions typically inhabit dry areas, and like digging burrows in sandy soil, sometimes under rocks or at the base of vegetation.
How to avoid being stung
First, do a bit of research on the area you’re going to, and find out if scorpions are endemic there. If they are, it’s even more important than usual to follow these precautions:
Wear shoes, particularly covered shoes and particularly at night. Most stings happen at night, to people going unshod.
Take care when lifting up rocks and fallen branches. It’s a good idea to wear sturdy gloves when doing camping chores like building a fire, moving rocks to put up a tent etc.
Scorpions and other fearsome beasts are a good motivation to set up and pack up camp while there’s daylight.
Shake out bedding before you get into it and when packing up. Do the same with clothes and shoes before dressing.
Don’t sleep directly on the ground – use a groundsheet at least. Your sleepingbag and tent also afford protection, but keep them zipped up.
Avoid sleeping right next to where scorpions may be hanging out, like at the base of thick vegetation.
Keep in mind that most stings occur in the period from October to March, with January-February, i.e. summer, as the peak.
What happens if you get stung
If a scorpion stings you, you’ll usually know about it. Even if you don’t actually see the culprit, you’ll feel the result: a sudden, often burning pain at the sting site. The pain may persist from a few minutes to a few hours, and there may be redness and swelling at the sting site. Fewer than 5% of stings result in symptoms requiring medical attention. Such symptoms, which suggest a serious sting, generally only start to occur after about half an hour, and sometimes only after several hours. These may include any of the following:
A burning sensation, or pins-and-needles, usually of the hands, feet, face and scalp.
Hypersensitivity to tactile stimuli e.g. your clothing or bedding become irritating to your skin. Sometimes you also become extremely sensitive to noise.
Lack of co-ordination with stiff-legged or ‘drunken’ walking.
Involuntary movements, tremors, muscle weakness
High or low pulse rate
Difficulty swallowing and excessive salivation i.e. drooling
Difficulty speaking normally
Headache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
Restlessness and anxiety
The severity of the sting will depend on several different factors: the species of scorpion, its size and level of agitation, and where it stings you. A bigger scorpion packs a bigger venom punch, as does a deeper sting.
Your health and age are also significant; stings are more dangerous for children and the elderly, and someone with cardiac or respiratory problems is at higher risk of a serious reaction.
What do to if you get stung
This is one time when you’ll be forgiven for killing wildlife*: it’s useful to keep the scorpion for identification purposes. But only try to bag the specimen if you can do so without risking another sting! Unless you’re an expert (i.e. you’ve done it many times before) don’t attempt taking the prisoner alive.
Clean the wound and apply a clean cloth, wrapped in ice or moistened with cold water, to the sting site. Take an over-the-counter painkiller like aspirin or paracetamol. If possible, get to the nearest hospital or doctor. Take note of any changes or additional symptoms that may occur.
No-one, except a medical professional trained to treat scorpion stings, should attempt to use any additional methods of treatment. Using the wrong kind or amount of anti-venom or other medications can be very dangerous.
It’s also important to reassure the scorpion’s victim that death from a sting is most unlikely. Sometimes people get into such a panic that they can even start to show false symptoms!
*You’re only forgiven if it’s actually stung someone; otherwise you get an indelible black mark on your Green record.
-Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Editor, Health24, updated July 2010
Leeming, J. 2003. Scorpions of South Africa. Struik Publishers, Cape Town.
Shire, L., Muller, G.J. and Pantanowitz, L. 1996. The diagnosis and treatment of envenomation in South Africa. Journal of the South Africa Institute for Medical Research.
Barefoot in scorpion country
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