How to Treat a Stringray Wound

A ray’s sting is caused by a sharp barb on the tail that transmits a venom into the victim.  The feeling and pain are somewhat similar to a bee sting.  The venom causes a pain, which is most intense 30-90 minutes after the sting, that ebbs and flows for a few hours.  Cuts, swelling and bleeding at the sting site are typical.

So, you’ve been barbed.  Being stung by a stingray is one of the more common wildlife clashes surfers suffer.  The good news is that despite the often intense pain, this a typically a very minor wound. (Make no mistake, it WILL hurt, but it’s not typically harmful.)  Here’s what to do:

  1. Chill out – going bonkers is won’t help.  Again this is a very minor injury that usually heals quickly*.  If you are an extreme case, you’ll know it immediately, seek medical attention pronto.  If have the clarity of mind enough to wonder if it’s bad, it’s not.
  2. Stingray barb in forearm. Photo by John L. Meade, MD.

    Clean the wound – as soon as you can, remove debris and wash the strike site with soap and water.  Wash off all the sand and double check that the ray didn’t leave any barb bits in the wound.  (Much like bee stings, sometimes bits are left behind at the strike site.)

  3. Heat the wound – soak the wound in water as hot as the victim can stand.  This will help alleviate the pain and possibly coax some of the venom out of the wound.  (The extreme heat can cause the venom to gelify and slip out!)  I’ve also heard MacGuyver stories of people using chemical heat pouches and sun drenched metal as heat sources to treat the wound.  These might work.  It’s the heat, not the water that is treating the pain.  If possible, apply heat for 30 minutes or more.
  4. Apply topical antibiotic – once the wound is dry, put some Neosporin or other topical antibiotic on to help decrease the chance of infection.  Neosporin is extra sweet because it will help with the pain as well.

Again, if the sting is serious (and there will be no doubt when it is) seek proper medical attention.  Also, if after a few days the would looks icky, seek professional medical attention.

How to avoid being stung – stingrays want nothing to do with humans.  When they do strike, it is usually a last-resort defense mechanism.  The easiest way to avoid a sting is to let the rays know you are around.  When walking/wading in the water, keep your feet to the ground and shuffle as you move along.  Rays will sense your presence and move away long before you ever knew they were there.

*Occasionally a sting wound can result in infection depending on the intensity of the sting and conditions of the event.  If so, treat right away to avoid a simple case becoming a serious case.  And in very extreme cases stings can result in death.  But the majority of what is encountered while surfing will be the littler rays that hang out in the shallows not the giant rays who cruise the oceans.

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