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Sting Alert: Stinging Wildlife (UK) and First Aid Treatment

Introduction: Navigating the Sting – Understanding Stinging Wildlife in the UK

As the temperatures rise, the outdoors beckons us to explore the lush expanses of temperate rainforests, coast, woods, grasslands, and moors. With fine weather, the allure of swimming in the sea or venturing into rocky alcoves becomes irresistible. Yet, amidst our outdoor adventures, we must remember that we are not the only ones revelling in the warmth. In the sea, there are jellyfish and siphonophores, weever fish, sea urchins and stingrays. On the land, there are bees, wasps and hornets.

Encounters with stinging animals prompt questions: What does it feel like to be stung? Are all stings alike and do they all need the same treatment? Do we know how to respond effectively? And is there potential danger lurking in these encounters? And finally, what is anaphylaxis and how do we recognise it and treat it?

Through this article, we delve into one or two real-life encounters with these stinging animals, shedding light on the experiences and suggesting how they might be avoided. While avoiding animal stings altogether may be unrealistic when enjoying the outdoor spaces, understanding the first aid for different types of stings is invaluable, especially when there is misinformation around what to do when you get stung.

 

Understanding Jellyfish and Siphonophores:

A siphonophore is not a jellyfish (despite looking similar and sharing the same environment) but a colony of hydrozoans that work together as if they are one organism. Encountering either jellyfish and siphonophores can range from enchanting to painful depending on the species, with their venom varying in toxicity.

Mild Stings: Jellyfish such as the moon jellyfish and by-the-wind sailor (a siphonophore) typically deliver mild stings. Such encounters are generally considered stimulating rather than distressing.

I once had a dive where I was immersed in a bloom of jellyfish known to have a mild sting. Seeing hundreds of jellyfish pulsing lazily above and below was unearthly and mesmerising. Despite swimming cautiously, I did notice some stings. Happily, I forgot my discomfort, fascinated by an alien world that few others will see.

Painful Stings: Some species, like the mauve stinger and compass jellyfish, can inflict painful stings. Characterized by sensations resembling electric shocks and persistent throbbing, these encounters may cause discomfort for hours.

Ed was unlucky enough to get entangled with a mauve stinger during a timed surface swim that he was required to do without a wetsuit. Both he and the jellyfish, wrapped around his bicep, completed the swim in good time. Ed successfully qualified to start his training as a Divemaster and the jellyfish rounded off its assisted swim with a short flight! Ed is the only person I know who had a jellyfish-shaped scar, probably due to the fact that he decided to continue the swim before stopping to remove his unwanted passenger. He also had pain for weeks, which is unusual for a sting not normally considered severe. Over the years, this scar has mostly faded.

Severe Stings: Rare but formidable, severe stings from marine life such as the lion’s mane jellyfish and the Portuguese man-o’-war, a siphonophore, can lead to extensive pain and swelling which can last for days and affect a whole limb.

 

First Aid for Jellyfish/ Siphonophore Stings:

  1. Rinse the affected area with seawater.
  2. Use tweezers or the edge of a bank card to remove any tentacles or spines. Do not touch the spines yourself.
  3. Soak the area in very warm water for at least 30 minutes.
  4. NB: Vinegar or urine on the sting is not advised and can make things worse.
  5. Pain relief can be managed with paracetamol or ibuprofen.
  6. Antihistamines can help to reduce itching and swelling.
Compass Jellyfish, Portuguese Man-o'-war and Lion's Mane Jellyfish are shown all floating sea animals that sting. They are beautiful, other-wordly creatures.

All jellyfish and siphonophores have venom, though the power of their sting varies.

Bee Stings: Risks and Prevention

Encounters with bees, particularly honeybees, can result in painful stings, as I learned first-hand. Enthusiastic and overconfident following a beekeeping course, I received an unwelcome sting when I came too close and a bee became caught in my hair:

I’m not sure what I was thinking. I wasn’t dressed in a beekeeping suit, just my ordinary clothes. The bee became caught in my long hair, buzzing and vibrating loudly. It stung me behind my ear before I could release it. It was painful.

Preventive Measures:

Unless properly equipped as a beekeeper, it’s advisable to maintain a safe distance from beehives and their flight paths.

Understanding bee behaviour is essential; bees typically only sting when feeling threatened, so avoiding sudden movements or disturbances around hives can mitigate the risk. Swarms of bees are generally non-aggressive and can be safely managed by local beekeepers. If this happens, local bee associations will send out a beekeeper to rehouse the swarm.

First Aid for Bee Stings:

  1. Remove the stinger by swiping it with a credit card. Do not touch the stinger yourself and do use tweezers as this may squeeze more venom into your skin.
  2. Wash the area with soap and water.
  3. Apply a cold compress to reduce pain and swelling.
  4. NB: Vinegar on the sting is not advised.
  5. Pain relief can be managed with paracetamol or ibuprofen.
  6. Antihistamines can help to reduce itching and swelling.
Bees, Wasps and Hornets are all examples of insects that sting.

Three types of flying insects that may sting.

Wasps and Hornets: Nuisance or Threat?

Being stung by a wasp is unmistakable. For some, the encounter can evoke fear, leading to spheksophobia, a fear of wasps. As the summer draws to a close, wasps make their presence known, particularly drawn to sweet beverages and picnic fare, adding an unwelcome element to outdoor gatherings, but this is not the only place they might be found.

I remember walking through the woods  when I noticed a wasp emerging from a hole in the ground on the path ahead. Not aware that wasps can nest underground, I continued along the path, but was stung twice on the back of my leg. Before long, two welts appeared. It was definitely painful. 

Even more daunting are hornets, twice the size of their wasp cousins and armed with a more potent sting and increased aggressiveness. Both wasps and hornets pose a threat, capable of delivering repeated stings and mobilising nestmates for defence. The release of pheromones by a killed hornet can trigger further attacks, escalating the danger. The recent arrival of Asian hornets in the UK exacerbates the situation, posing risks to both bees and humans alike.

How to Avoid Them:

  • When encountering a wasp or hornet, calmly retreat to a safe distance to minimize the risk of provocation.
  • Avoid swatting or killing them, as this may attract further aggression from nearby insects.
  • Refrain from disturbing any discovered nests; instead, enlist the assistance of professional pest control services for safe removal if necessary.

By exercising caution and respect towards these formidable insects, individuals can mitigate the potential hazards associated with encounters, fostering a harmonious coexistence with nature.

First Aid for Wasps and Hornet Stings:

  1. Wash the affected area.
  2. Apply ice to reduce pain and swelling.
  3. Pain relief can be managed with paracetamol or ibuprofen.
  4. Antihistamines can help to reduce itching and swelling.

 

Beware of the Weever Fish: Prevention and Treatment

Weever fish, lurking in the sandy shallows along the coastline, pose a significant hazard to unsuspecting beachgoers. With their small size, typically under 10cm, and adept camouflage, they are easily overlooked and inadvertently stepped on.

The sting of a weever fish is notoriously excruciating, likened to the intensity of a wasp or bee sting but with a more widespread and intense effect. Victims often describe the sensation as akin to their entire limb being on fire, a distressing experience, especially for children. The initial two hours post-sting are typically the most agonising, but lingering pain may persist for up to two weeks, especially if the spine becomes lodged in the foot.

Preventive Measures:

Footwear: Utilise protective beach shoes or dive boots to shield against accidental encounters with weever fish.
Mindful Movement: Exercise caution to avoid direct contact with the sandy seabed, refraining from touching it with hands, feet or kneeling.
By adhering to these precautionary measures, individuals can minimise the risk of weever fish stings and ensure a safer and more enjoyable beach experience.

 

First Aid for Weever Fish Stings:

  1. Remove the spine if still embedded.
  2. Immerse the affected limb in very hot water (above 40°C) for rapid relief; avoid scalding.
  3. Pain relief can be managed with paracetamol or ibuprofen.
  4. Antihistamines can help to reduce itching and swelling.
Images of three marine animals that sting: the sting ray, sea urchin and weever fish

Three marine animals that sting.

Stingrays: Rare Yet Hazardous Encounters

While encounters with stingrays are infrequent, they carry the potential for severe stings, surpassing even the weever fish in intensity. However, such incidents are unlikely unless individuals engage in reckless behaviour, such as fishermen, scuba divers or swimmers provoking the rays. The powerful venom housed within the spine, situated beneath their whip-like tail, poses a significant threat. Tragically, the world witnessed the fatal consequences of a stingray encounter when TV personality Steve Irwin succumbed to a stingray’s defensive strike, resulting in his death.

Contrary to popular misconception, stingrays are not inherently aggressive creatures. They will only resort to stinging when they perceive a threat to their safety.

Precautions to Avoid Stingray Encounters:

  • Keep Back: Stingrays typically avoid human interaction unless provoked. Maintain a respectful distance to minimise the risk of provocation.
  • Vigilance: Remain vigilant of their presence, especially along the seabed. Use a mask or goggles to help.
  • Don’t Touch: Refrain from touching or disturbing stingrays, respecting their natural habitat and behaviour.
  • Assistance: In the event of a stingray becoming ensnared in a net or line, seek professional assistance rather than attempting to free it yourself.
  • Avoid the sea floor: Exercise caution while swimming or diving near the sea floor, where stingrays may be concealed.

By adhering to these precautionary measures, individuals can minimize the risk of stingray encounters and ensure their safety.

 

First Aid for Stingray Stings:

  1. Ensure no retained spines in the wound.
  2. Clean the wound to prevent infection.
  3. Manage bleeding from deep wounds.
  4. Seek medical attention for concerns about retained spines or deep wounds. Do not attempt to remove very deep barbs yourself.
  5. Soak the wound in very hot water (43-46’C) for up to 90 minutes. Avoid scalding. Replace the water every 10 minutes.
  6. Cover the wound.
  7. Seek medical help for any potential infection.
  8. Pain relief can be managed with paracetamol or ibuprofen.
  9. Antihistamines can help to reduce itching and swelling.

 

Sea Urchins: The Hidden Hazard of Coastal Waters

Sea urchins are the spiny hedgehogs of the sea, nestling in hollows along the rocky sea shore. Each of the hollow spines contains a venom that can sting. Sea urchins move extremely slowly and these movements can only be observed easily with time lapse photography. Since they will not approach you, the only way you will get stung is by standing or falling on them, or if you touched them with your hands.

The spines can become broken off and work their way deeper into the body, so it is important to remove them. See more in the first aid section below.

 

First Aid for Sea Urchin Stings:

  1. Remove any spines with tweezers or seek medical assistance.
  2. Apply shaving gel and lightly shave the area where the spine entered.
  3. Soak the affected area in hot water for at least 1 hour.
  4. Seek medical attention if symptoms worsen, retained spines or  suspected infection.
  5. Pain relief can be managed with paracetamol or ibuprofen.
  6. Antihistamines can help to reduce itching and swelling.

 

Anaphylaxis: Recognizing and Responding to Severe Reactions

Anaphylaxis is a concern with any of the animals that sting. This is when a reaction occurs which affects not just the site of contact, but the whole body, potentially airway, breathing and circulation. For most of us, stinging is painful and annoying. However, some of us develop a life-threatening reaction to a sting and it can be serious.

Anaphylaxis UK groups the symptoms into this useful pattern.

  • Airway: Swelling to the mouth, throat and tongue, hoarse voice, difficulty swallowing
  • Breathing: Difficulty breathing, wheezing, noisy breathing
  • Circulation: Irregular heart rhythm, fast heart, dizziness, feeling faint, confusion, pale, clammy skin, loss of consciousness

In addition, you may have itching away from the site of the sting, severe stomach pain, diarrhoea or vomiting.

 

First Aid for Anaphylaxis:

  1. If the patient has an adrenaline auto-injector (AAI), use it immediately. Note the time.
  2. Lie down and raise the feet up
  3. Call 999, giving clear and precise directions, including the postcode or what3words.
  4. Use your second AAI after five minutes if you get worse or there’s been no improvement.
  5. Avoid sudden changes in posture, even if you are feeling better. This can lower your blood pressure drastically, causing your heart to stop. Do not stand up or sit up until the ambulance arrives.
Managing shock: images of a woman using autoinjector through her clothing, a pair of paramedics ready for action and someone with their legs propped against a tree shock

Three things you can do if someone has signs of anaphylaxis.

Conclusion:

Awareness of stinging animals can help us to stay safe. However, it isn’t always possible to avoid them entirely.  Even with googles or a mask, visibility beneath the waves can be poor  or the nest or hive may not be obvious to us. When we factor in some stinging animals’ ability to camouflage, it’s understandable that we may not see the danger.

If you need to deal with a sting injury, try to identify what has caused you the discomfort as treatment differs somewhat when treating the sting of each animal. Some stings are relatively mild, others are painful and some are excruciating and the inflicted pain can cause nerve issues for a longer time frame. Out of all of the animals we have considered, only the stingray is life-threatening if the barb happens to cut into an artery or vein. Fortunately, encountering them is rare since it does not seek out human contact.

A further consideration is anaphylaxis, which can be life-threatening response to even a small amount of any of the venomous animals mentioned in this article, even those not normally considered dangerous. Treat the casualty for shock, use an adrenaline injector if you have one and ensure they receive urgent medical assistance.