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Marine Animal Bite or Sting

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Jul 4, 2022.

What is a marine animal bite or sting?

A marine animal bite or sting happens when you are poisoned or wounded by an animal that lives in salt water. Marine animals that bite include barracudas, moray eels, and sharks. Portuguese man-of-war, jellyfish, and sea anemones are some of the animals that inject poison through their tentacles when they come in contact with a person's skin. Broken tentacles can still sting for weeks or months after being separated from the animal, even if they are dried. Stingrays and sea urchins are some of the other marine animals that sting using their spines and barbs.

What are the signs and symptoms of a marine animal bite or sting?

  • Bite wounds: You may have any of the following:
    • Bleeding, torn skin, or large areas of skin bitten off
    • Throbbing pain or trouble moving the bitten area
    • Broken bones
    • Redness, tenderness, or warmth around the wound, or pus coming from the wound
    • Fever
  • Stings: You may have any of the following:
    • Pain that burns, pricks, or stings where you were stung
    • Itching, tingling, or numbness where you were stung
    • Redness, rash, blisters, or other skin changes where you were stung
    • Bleeding and swelling where you were stung
    • Nausea and vomiting
    • Headache, fever, chills, sweating, weakness, and muscle cramps
    • A severe allergic reaction, which can cause trouble breathing, fainting, and convulsions

How is a marine animal bite or sting diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask you to describe your symptoms and he will examine the injured area. Tell him all the details you know about the bite or sting, including when it occurred and if you saw what happened. He will check to see how deep the wound is and look for signs of infection. You may need the following:

  • Blood tests: Your healthcare provider may order blood tests to check for an infection.
  • Wound culture: This is a method to grow and identify the germs that may be in your wound. This helps healthcare providers find out if you have an infection and the best medicine to treat it.
  • X-ray: This is a picture of your bones and tissues in the wound area. Healthcare providers use these pictures to look for broken bones or objects such as spines or teeth.

How is a marine animal bite or sting treated?

Treatment depends on what marine animal caused the injury, and the location and severity of the injury. It also depends on how long you have had the injury and whether other body parts were affected. You may need any of the following:

  • Wound cleaning: Pieces of teeth, tentacles, or spine left inside the skin will be removed carefully. Your healthcare provider may soak your wound in hot, non-scalding water for some time. The wound will be cleaned with soap, water, and antibacterial solution. This helps wash away germs which may be in the wound, and decrease the chances of infection. Objects, dirt, or dead tissues from the open wound will be removed. Healthcare providers may drain the wound to clean out pus.
  • Medicines: Your healthcare provider will give you antibiotic medicine to fight infection. You may also be given medicine to ease your symptoms, such as pain, swelling, and allergic reactions. You may need tetanus shots, immune globulins, and antivenom medicine. You may also receive oxygen or a blood transfusion.
  • Stitches or surgery: Your wound may be left open until it heals or it may be closed with stitches. You may need surgery to repair a broken bone or damaged joint, tendon, or nerve. Rarely, you may need surgery to rebuild or remove the body part with the bite wound.

How should I care for my wound?

  • Bites:
    • Flush the bitten area with water. Clean it with mild soap and water to prevent infection.
    • Use a clean cloth to apply direct pressure to the wound to stop any bleeding.
    • Do not remove teeth from a marine animal. This could further damage your muscles or tissues. Leave teeth in place until your healthcare provider can remove them.
  • Stings:
    • If tentacles are attached, soak your skin in vinegar for at least 10 minutes before you remove them. Do not use alcohol. Alcohol may cause the tentacle to fire more poison. Use tweezers to gently remove the tentacles from the skin. Do not touch the tentacles with your hands. Another way to remove the tentacles is to apply shaving cream or baking soda to the area. Then, scrape away the tentacles very gently with a razor blade. If you are on a beach, make a paste of sand and seawater. Apply the paste, then scrape off the tentacles using a shell or credit card.
    • Soak the affected area in hot water for 60 to 90 minutes.
    • Carefully remove pieces of broken spines or barbs from your skin. Put on gloves before you do this. Do not try to remove pieces that are inside a deep cut. Do not try to remove pieces if you think they may be lodged in a joint or nerve.
    • Wash the sting site using soap and water. Apply an antibiotic ointment on broken skin or hydrocortisone cream to relieve pain.

What are the risks from a marine animal bite or sting?

There is a risk of severe loss of blood and tissues. Medicines to treat a marine animal bite or sting may cause nausea, vomiting, or stomach ulcers. You may develop soreness, redness, or swelling where tetanus shots were given. Untreated marine bites or stings may lead to more serious problems, such as infections and severe allergic reactions. Severe allergic reactions may cause life-threatening problems such as irregular heartbeats, breathing problems, or coma.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You have a fever.
  • You have a skin rash, itching, or swelling after taking your medicine.
  • You have tingling in the area of the bite or sting.
  • You have pain or problems moving the injured area or get tender lumps in your groin or armpits.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care or call 911?

  • You are having trouble talking, walking, or breathing.
  • You have double vision, slurred speech, drooling, muscle cramps or convulsions.
  • You have swelling, numbness, or cannot move the arm or leg below the injury.
  • You have tightness in your throat, wheezing when you breathe, swollen tongue, or rashes over your body.
  • Your pain is the same or worse even after taking medicine.
  • Your wound does not stop bleeding even after you apply pressure.
  • Your wound or bandage has pus or a bad smell, even if you are clean it every day.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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