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Sharp Health News

Treating the sting of Mother Nature

April 19, 2016

Treating the sting of Mother Nature

San Diego's sunny weather, gorgeous beaches, rolling hills, and glorious mountain and desert regions make it a virtual playground for nature enthusiasts. But exploring the great outdoors isn't without risks — from snakebites and jellyfish stings to stingray and bee encounters. Knowing what to do in case of emergency could save a life.

"When the weather heats up, snakebites are seen more frequently in the emergency room," says Dr. Julie Phillips, an emergency medicine doctor affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital. "Spring and summer are official snakebite seasons."

In California, rattlesnake bites account for 800-plus snakebites each year, resulting in one to two deaths. Although generally not aggressive, rattlers will strike when threatened or deliberately provoked. Forty-five percent of bites are accidental and 55 percent occur when someone tries to handle the snake.

"If you've been bit by a rattlesnake, call 911 immediately. Even if you're unsure of the type of snake, call paramedics or come to the ER for an evaluation. Knowing the type of snake is useful, but not a requirement," she says.

A bite from a venomous snake can cause serious allergic reaction resulting in anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening condition. Symptoms include swelling of the face or throat and shortness of breath within minutes. Swelling, blisters and purple discoloration may develop around the bite site. In addition, a metallic taste, dizziness and vomiting are signs of a serious envenomation, or delivery of venom into the body.

"We do blood work and look for signs of envenomation. If anti-venom medication is administered, the patient is watched carefully and an overnight stay is required," says Dr. Phillips.

She offers these important tips for snakebites:

  • DON'T try to suck or cut the bite open. It doesn't help to extract the venom and you're risking spreading the venom faster.
  • DON'T apply a tourniquet, which can cause more damage. When removed, it could allow a very fast spread of venom into the blood stream.
  • DO hold the extremity as still as possible, call 911 or go directly to the ER.

Jellyfish and stingray stings
Most jellyfish stings are painful, but not life-threatening. "California in general doesn't have venomous jellyfish, so very few jellyfish stings require a trip to the ER," says Dr. Phillips.

Typically, jellyfish stings occur when people rub up against them in the ocean or touch them once they've washed up on the beach. Pain and a red streaking line occur at the site of the sting. Stingers called nematocysts, which look like small capsules, attach to the skin and inject a small amount of toxin.

"It's necessary to remove the stingers one at time to stop further release of the toxin. Using tweezers or a flat surface such as a credit card to flick them off is best. Avoid using your bare hands if possible," she adds.

  • DON'T use a vinegar rinse to treat the sting. "Recent studies indicate it may make some stings worse," says Dr. Phillips.
  • DO remove the stingers in salt water and then apply hot water afterward. A slurry of baking soda and water mixed together can also be used to help remove the stingers.
  • DON'T urinate on the sting. "That's a myth and doesn't help. Meat tenderizer and alcohol are also not helpful and can cause more toxin release."
Stingrays are another common sea critter encounter. Often hiding on the ocean floor, they're difficult to see and deliver a painful sting. "You should walk in the ocean using the 'stingray shuffle.' Drag your feet through the sand to warn the stingray you're coming and give it time to swim away," says Dr. Phillips.

Stingray stings should be soaked in hot water for 30 to 40 minutes to neutralize the toxin. If possible, you can try to remove the stinger but if it's too deeply embedded, a trip to the ER may be required to remove it.

Bee stings
Bee stings cause pain and irritation lasting up to 10 days, including redness, swelling and itchiness of the site, but most people get through it quickly. Approximately 2 million Americans, or .006 percent of the population, are allergic to bee stings and may have a much more severe reaction or anaphylaxis.

Itchiness and welts on the whole body are signs of an allergic reaction. Swelling of the face or throat are signs of anaphylaxis, a very serious allergic reaction that requires immediate treatment.

"If you have signs of a serious reaction, call 911 immediately," says Dr. Philips. "If you have access to antihistamine and you can swallow without difficulty, take the recommended dose. Also, if you have a previously known allergy and have an epinephrine injector, you should use that while waiting for the paramedics."

"If you or a family member have had allergies to bee stings, be sure to carry remedies such as antihistamine or epinephrine with you, especially for outdoor activities or if you're going to be hiking or camping in a remote place."

For the media: To talk with a Sharp doctor about treating snakebites and other dangerous encounters with the animal kingdom, contact Senior Public Relations Specialist Erica Carlson at

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