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The Truth About Getting Stung by a Lionfish

National Geographic Young Explorer Erin Spencer will spend one month in the Florida Keys documenting efforts by beachside locals to contain a recent and dangerous influx of invasive lionfish. Follow along with The Lionfish Project on Explorers Journal, Erin’s project websiteFacebook page, and Twitter

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“It won’t kill you, but it’ll make you wish you were dead”.

That’s how Mike Ryan described a lionfish sting as he briefed a boat full of people before an afternoon dive. Mike, an instructor at Horizon Divers in Key Largo, developed the Lionfish Safari Diver course for recreational divers to learn about invasive lionfish and try their hand at hunting the fish themselves. For a group of inexperienced hunters, that was probably the last thing we wanted to hear.

That wasn’t the first time someone warned me about the stings of this invasive predator. When you’re dealing with lionfish, the topic is bound to come up. In almost every interview I conducted, the conversation eventually turned to a dramatically recounted story of the time (or times) the interviewee was stung, each tale more cringe-worthy than the last. And while it’s clear that getting pricked by a lionfish is no walk in the park, stings can be easily avoided by proper handling techniques and safety measures. Be sure to keep the following three things in mind when dealing with lionfish to decrease your risk of getting stung.

Lionfish stings can occur long after the fish has died. Photo by Erin Spencer.
Lionfish stings can occur long after the fish has died. Photo by Erin Spencer.

Lionfish spines are used defensively, not offensively.

Lionfish spines are used as a deterrent for predators rather than for hunting prey. So don’t worry- lionfish aren’t about to ambush unsuspecting divers or swimmers. Lionfish only use their weapons defensively; therefore simply steering clear of their venomous dorsal, ventral, and anal spines can avoid stings.

If you are stung, a loose sheath surrounding each spine is pushed down, compressing two venom glands located down then length of the spine. Neurotoxic venom then travels through two parallel grooves up the spine and into the wound. Sounds unpleasant, right? Better just to avoid the spines in the first place.

Lionfish safety applies both on and off the water. 

The overwhelming majority of lionfish stings result from people simply not paying attention.

Stings can occur even after the lionfish is dead.

 Stings can occur even after the fish have died, so handlers should be aware of their lionfish at all times, whether they are underwater, on a boat, or back in the kitchen filleting the fish up for dinner. I heard many stories of victims unknowingly sticking their hands into coolers containing lionfish and finding a painful surprise inside.

So make sure everyone you’re with knows where the lionfish are located, as well as which of the fishes’ spines are dangerous. Some handlers (myself included) choose to use medical-grade puncture-proof gloves to help protect from stings. Although these gloves don’t protect all potential sting sites, they decrease the risk of accidental envenomation when handling the fish.

Puncture-proof gloves are a great way to decrease your risk of getting stung. Photo by Eric Billips
Puncture-proof gloves are a great way to decrease your risk of getting stung. Photo by Eric Billips

Just in case, know what to do if you get stung.

Even if you follow all the safety precautions, sometimes mistakes happen. Immediate first response can help decrease pain and swelling, so have a plan in place if you or anyone you’re with is going to be handling lionfish. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recommends immersing the wound in hot (but not scalding) water for about 30 minutes as soon as possible after the sting occurs – this helps denature the lionfish venom and decrease pain.

If necessary, remove any spines still located in the wound. Lionfish stings are rarely fatal, but in extreme cases nausea, vomiting, and allergic reactions can result, so monitor symptoms closely. One spear fisherman swore that if someone had offered to amputate his stung foot, he would have accepted the invitation gladly.

On the other hand, a divemaster I spoke with said he barely noticed the pain when he was stung, and didn’t experience any swelling or adverse effects. Ultimately, everyone seems to respond to stings differently. Most people I talked to experienced some pain and swelling for anywhere from a few hours to a few days.

The important thing to remember is this: the more you know about stings, the more effectively you can prevent them. Pay attention to your lionfish at all times and have a plan in place in case you or a friend gets stung. There are quite a few examples of people who have dealt with large quantities of lionfish and have never been stung, proving that with proper handling and a bit of luck, you can avoid envenomation. But remember, on the off chance you do get pricked, you’ll at least have a great lionfish war-story to tell your friends.

 

NEXTTop 5 Myths About Lionfish

Comments

  1. Dwight donaldson
    Jamaica
    April 12, 7:31 pm

    I’m Currently In Pain Writing This Comment,Got Stung On The Left Leg Right Above The Knee. It’s On Fire….Got Stung About 5Hrs Ago And I Didn’t Get The Chance To Put The Affected Area In Hot Water. Am Wondering Now If It’s Too Late To Do So. Great Experience Though Plus They Are Very Tasty Esp Wen Them Are Browned Stewed,Real Jamaican Style…Can’t Wait To Eat The One That Stung Me….This Definatly Won’t Stop Me From Hunting Them….Lol

  2. Randy
    Ft Lauderdale
    December 17, 2013, 3:10 pm

    Let us start with how tasty they are. Amazing sushi and you know its fresh. Hog Fish good. I dive take scissors and use a spear ploe with Trident 3 prong tips, round not flat. This enables you control the fish as not to spin on the shaft. This makes it easier and safer to cut off the spines. I cut off everything tail fin first. Takes the kick right out of em. Then drop it in my lobster bag and move on. I found filing down the barbs on the tip make it easier to knock the little ones off. The local nurse sharks like them and often swim up on you for a free lunch. A far as the sting I got it once, I don’t think it was the full dose it hurt for a couple of hours 4 out of a 10, swelling went away that night.

  3. deeeeeeeeeeeee
    Houstoneeee
    October 30, 2013, 1:28 pm

    No comment.

  4. allan
    19mtblanc place north park
    October 5, 2013, 6:11 am

    This fish is highly venomes.

  5. Katherine
    singapore
    September 26, 2013, 9:17 am

    loin fish is so dangerous ,yet you still can handle it! Your such a Pro!

  6. SaltwaterDave
    Florida Panhandle
    September 6, 2013, 3:31 pm

    I was stung for the second time in 4 days yesterday. The first one occurred on my left hand middle knuckle at a depth of 100 feet. It went through the finger with and entrance and exit hole, this while wearing the nylon/latex dipped gloves. I would rate the pain a 5 on a scale to 10. The second sting was 4 days later in between the joints on the interior side of my tumb at a depth of 125 feet. At depth it wasn’t too painful but by the time I got to the topside it was a 10! And to date is the most painful injury I have ever had. The one thing that I would like to pass on about this experience is HOT water. There is an endless supply of it cooling your motor! Figure out how to get to the hot water. The water that you see peeing from the motor is not as hot as what is going right over the block of the motor, collect some in a bucket and add cooler seawater to bring it down to a tolerable level. By the time my sting came down from a 10 to a 7 I had 2nd degree burns from the water, and I was thankful for them! I wound up going to the ER because of the pain and swelling. They did an Xray but found nothing, they put me on antibiotics, steroids, pain killers and suggested a good antihistamine. Today my hand is still twice the size of the other one, the swelling is such that I can not see my knuckles. But the pain is down to a 3 on a scale of 10. Lots of ice!

  7. Poisson Lion
    French West Indies
    August 29, 2013, 6:36 am

    Right ! Come and support us in French West Indies : http://www.facebook.com/mangezdupoissonlion

  8. James B. Wood
    South Florida
    August 14, 2013, 1:30 am

    There are better tools to remove a lionfish from a spear than those medical gloves. To use those gloves, you have to get near the lionfish and those gloves only offer protection on one side. Tools like the Frapper and Zookeeper keep the spines well away from divers hands and bodies. There are also special containment bags that add additional safety.

    James B. Wood PhD
    Atlantic Lionfish on FaceBook

    PS Please do not feed speared lionfish to predators. You are not training them to go out and hunt healthy lionfish but you are training them to associate humans with a free lunch.

  9. RJ de Pedro
    Puerto Rico
    August 12, 2013, 10:47 pm

    I enjoyed the article, and we applaud anyone’s effort to get involved in the fight against the lionfish (Pterois volitans or Pterois miles) invasion, but I found a few points that need to be addressed. Our group, Proyecto Pterois, is involved in lionfish research and control, so developing a protocol for handling venomous stings was one of our first concerns. 

    A Pterois sting can be extremely painful but the effect will depend on the body’s reaction and the amount of venom that enters the tissue. If the victim receives multiple stings more toxins enter the body, the effect of the venom increases and the need for medical attention becomes critical. While the effects described in the article will generally only last from hours to days depending on the individual’s reaction and the amount of toxins, if the person is allergic the sting can be fatal if immediate and appropriate medical attention is not provided. It is important for the person stung to relax, to reduce the spread of the toxin. 

    The wound should be cleaned with disinfectants and triple antibiotic cream before starting the soak, taking care not to rub the wound, which can push in spine fragments. You should never try to remove fragments, and should let medical personnel remove them. The warm water soak should begin as soon as possible after the sting, before the toxins start traveling through the tissue, and the water temperature should stay between 110F and 114F, for the soak to be effective against the toxins. 

    If you have any concerns about the sting or the victim’s symptoms, a call to the CDC is advisable. A Pterois sting is manageable, with preparation and quick appropriate action. 

    Don’t let concern about being stung keep you from going after those invasive lionfish.

  10. Saeed
    Iran
    August 12, 2013, 8:43 am

    Great job dear Erin. I knew that Lionfish is dangerous but didn’t know anything else, so this article is perfect. The only thing I didn’t understand is the word “envemonation” in the article. I searched a lot to find the meaning, but all failed. Do you mean “envenomation”. Hope to hear from you.

  11. Codifex
    August 10, 2013, 5:58 am

    Nice article, useful information, great smile.

  12. J2das
    California
    August 9, 2013, 9:06 am

    Damn those things are no laughing matter.

  13. Judy Joyner
    Reisterstown, MD
    August 8, 2013, 9:08 pm

    Such an informative article..great job Erin. You really look like you are have a terrific time and your parents are so proud of you-your Mom told me that!