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First Aid For Stingray Encounters  at Cabela's

First Aid For Stingray Encounters

Author: Fred Everson

Mention the hazards of wade fishing, in tropical saltwater, and the first image conjured up is apt to be of sharks or barracudas. Actually, the realities of wade fishing's dangers are less glamorous and even far less susceptible to cinematic exploitation.

Even in water this clear, stingray can get you.
An angler on foot is more likely to be injured by something man made - like a rusty nail protruding from a waterlogged board, or perhaps a jagged piece of broken glass. The greatest danger posed by marine life is not from anything so ferocious as the jagged teeth of a shark, but it does emanate from a close, less toothy relative.

The Southern stingray (Dasyatis americana) is normally a docile creature, but it can, and will, hurt you if you step on it. Sometimes just passing close by will be enough to startle a ray into striking in self-defense. All rays belong to the superorder Batoidea, which includes stingrays, electric rays, skates, guitarfish, and the visually stimulating sawfish. Like sharks, their closest relatives, batoids have skeletons made of tough connective tissue called cartilage. About 480 species of batoids are distributed worldwide, particularly in warm and temperate climates and are found in oceans, estuaries, freshwater streams, lagoons, lakes, shallow offshore waters, and coastlines. Among the best know rays are stingrays, which have long, slim, whip-like tails armed with serrated, venomous spines. Rays bury themselves under the sand and wait for a likely looking meal. It is this natural feeding tactic that brings anglers, swimmers and romantic waders into conflict with their defense measures. A stingray lashes its tail, only as a defensive measure, when it is caught, stepped on, or otherwise disturbed.

While wading several years ago, I stepped on something very sharp that gave pain of the sort that you get when the dentist administers a shot of novocaine. But it hurt for a lot longer, and no white gowned assistant was smiling down while the injection was administered. The pain was nagging, but not the type of an injury that would stop me from fishing. Totally engrossed in my angling efforts, I did not realize that I had stepped on a very small stingray until a month later, when I had a similar but more severe experience.

My second encounter was with a much larger ray. The stinger at the base of its tail blew a hole through the sole of my wading shoe and into the heel of my foot. The wound was the stuff of torture, the kind of pain that makes you writhe around and grind your teeth. The wound sent me to the emergency room, after a dumb stretch during which I kept on fishing until the pain finally drove me off the water. In the hospital, I learned that the immediate treatment to neutralize the painful effect of stingray venom is to immerse the wound in very hot water. It was an expensive lesson, but I learned a few things about stingrays and first aid that has mitigated the cost over several subsequent incidents. With the regularity of ray encounters that I have "enjoyed" in the past few months, if patterns hold true, over the next few years the cost per treatment will be almost nil.
The Southern Stingray
Stingrays eat crabs, shrimp and clams, and also attract many species of game fish by stirring all sorts of prey off the bottom. So wading in the presence of stingrays has its advantages. And as long as you don't step on them, they are apt to leave you alone. However, nobody steps on a stingray intentionally, and they do not always see you coming. Shuffling your feet will help, but it's not foolproof. If you wade where stingrays are plentiful, you will step on or near a ray eventually. In a strictly defensive response, the ray may strike with a venomous, barbed stinger that lies at the meaty base of its powerful, whip like tail. Under magnification, the barb looks like something out of a medieval torture chamber, and the resulting pain feels like it could come from the same place.

Rarely fatal but usually painful, most hits are to the foot or ankle. Wading shoes will not deflect the barb, nor will something as tough as shark skin, or even quarter inch plywood. I once saw a beached ray that had driven its barb into a large blacktip shark laying next to it. Anyone who has ever bounced a two handed gaff off a shark will appreciate this. Suffice it to say that neoprene wading shoes, or an old pair of sneakers won't help if you put your foot on the wrong ray.

My latest stingray hit came as we were pushing my boat off the flats at low tide where it was too shallow to pole. A friend was pushing from the port side of the poling platform, and I was pushing from starboard, right next to the outboard. In this situation, when a boat passes over a stingray in such shallow water, it will usually scamper out of the way. One ray chose to hold his ground, and I must have come too close, because it stung me in the side of the foot at the base of the instep.

I hopped into the boat and ripped off my wading shoe, and there was lots of bleeding. The barb had struck a vein, and I was hopeful that much of the venom would leave the wound with the blood. The pain was not as intense as that of my previous encounter, but it was getting more severe by the minute. Fortunately, we were close to the boat ramp, and about 30 minutes after being struck, my foot was immersed in a solution of hot water and meat tenderizer. The hot water came right out of the tap, probably around 120 degrees. From past experience I knew the pain would return when the water temperature dropped, so I used a beverage cooler for my foot bath. I am happy to report that the pain subsided in the hot water very quickly, and an hour later, the effects of the venom had run its course. The swelling of the wound had gone down, and close examination revealed no part of the barb left in the skin.

This experience was but a minor inconvenience compared to the trip to the emergency room, and it's all about knowing what to do when you get hit by a stingray. If you are going to wade fish, know how to apply meat tenderizer (keep some in your tackle box) and hot water ASAP. A physician should be consulted to check the status of the wound, even if home treatment is effective.

The venom injected from the stingray's barb is a mixture of toxic enzymes and various other proteins. Immersing the wound in very hot water neutralizes the painful effect of the venom. The water that runs out of your outboard motor is not hot enough to alleviate the pain (I tried it the third time I got stung), but hot tap water usually is. An emergency room doctor told me after my first sting ray encounter that applying meat tenderizer directly to the wound will help. The sooner the wound can be treated, the less severe the effects are apt to be. The trick is not to let the water, used to bathe the wound, cool down.

Even under ideal circumstances, when initial treatment is quickly administered and effective at minimizing the pain, a visit to a physician is advised. The doctor can ensure that no part of the barb remains in the wound and determine the need for a tetanus shot and/or antibiotics.

While it is an inconvenience, and a painful one at that, you don't want to allow something that can be minor to escalate into a problem that keeps you from going fishing the next day. After all, fishing is far more important than that.

Venom in the barb affects the cardiovascular system (heart and blood vessels) and can even cause irregular heart rhythms. In extreme cases, it can cause the heart to stop beating all together. Removing the barb can often cause more damage than the initial wound. If the barb is embedded into your skin, it is best to have it removed by trained medical personnel.

Symptoms of Stingray venom
  • The barbed tail can do considerable physical damage and often significant bleeding occurs.
  • Pain at the site of injury is immediate and will intensify over the next 30 to 90 minutes, but it gradually subsides over the next 6 to 48 hours, depending on the amount of venom delivered.
  • The venom from the barbed tail affects the cardiovascular system (heart and blood vessels), causing both peripheral vasoconstriction (blanched white extremities) or dilatation (beefy red extremities).
  • The venom may also cause arrhythmia (irregular heartbeats) or even a systole reaction (the heart may stop beating altogether).
  • The venom can act on respiratory centers in the brain, causing a reduced rate of respiration.
  • Convulsion may develop from the venom's effect on other brain centers.
Treatment of Skin injuries from Stingrays.

SEEK PROMPT MEDICAL ATTENTION! -Since the venom of stingrays can affect both respiration and heart rate, your doctor may resort to a number of medical treatments. The following information is provided to give you a better idea of what course of action you might be asked to consider.
  • Intravenous medication may be necessary to maintain heart rate, and if respiration is slow enough, mechanical ventilation may be required!
  • The wound should be well irrigated with saline solution.
  • Stingray venom is destroyed by heat, and soaking the affected extremity in hot water (120°F) for 30 minutes to 1 hour is a primary form of treatment.
  • Intravenous calcium gluconate may be required to prevent muscle spasms.
  • Local infiltration of the wound with lidocaine may be required for pain relief, as well as meperidine or some other narcotic analgesic.
  • Surgical debridment (removal of dead tissue) may be necessary if the wound is severe. The patient may be given tetanous toxoid and antibiotics to prevent secondary infection.

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