Changing Planet

The Truth About Getting Stung by a Lionfish

National Geographic Young Explorer Erin Spencer will spend one month in the Florida Keys documenting efforts by beachside locals to contain a recent and dangerous influx of invasive lionfish. Follow along with The Lionfish Project on Explorers Journal, Erin’s project websiteFacebook page, and Twitter


“It won’t kill you, but it’ll make you wish you were dead”.

That’s how Mike Ryan described a lionfish sting as he briefed a boat full of people before an afternoon dive. Mike, an instructor at Horizon Divers in Key Largo, developed the Lionfish Safari Diver course for recreational divers to learn about invasive lionfish and try their hand at hunting the fish themselves. For a group of inexperienced hunters, that was probably the last thing we wanted to hear.

That wasn’t the first time someone warned me about the stings of this invasive predator. When you’re dealing with lionfish, the topic is bound to come up. In almost every interview I conducted, the conversation eventually turned to a dramatically recounted story of the time (or times) the interviewee was stung, each tale more cringe-worthy than the last. And while it’s clear that getting pricked by a lionfish is no walk in the park, stings can be easily avoided by proper handling techniques and safety measures. Be sure to keep the following three things in mind when dealing with lionfish to decrease your risk of getting stung.

Lionfish stings can occur long after the fish has died. Photo by Erin Spencer.
Lionfish stings can occur long after the fish has died. Photo by Erin Spencer.

Lionfish spines are used defensively, not offensively.

Lionfish spines are used as a deterrent for predators rather than for hunting prey. So don’t worry- lionfish aren’t about to ambush unsuspecting divers or swimmers. Lionfish only use their weapons defensively; therefore simply steering clear of their venomous dorsal, ventral, and anal spines can avoid stings.

If you are stung, a loose sheath surrounding each spine is pushed down, compressing two venom glands located down then length of the spine. Neurotoxic venom then travels through two parallel grooves up the spine and into the wound. Sounds unpleasant, right? Better just to avoid the spines in the first place.

Lionfish safety applies both on and off the water. 

The overwhelming majority of lionfish stings result from people simply not paying attention.

Stings can occur even after the lionfish is dead.

 Stings can occur even after the fish have died, so handlers should be aware of their lionfish at all times, whether they are underwater, on a boat, or back in the kitchen filleting the fish up for dinner. I heard many stories of victims unknowingly sticking their hands into coolers containing lionfish and finding a painful surprise inside.

So make sure everyone you’re with knows where the lionfish are located, as well as which of the fishes’ spines are dangerous. Some handlers (myself included) choose to use medical-grade puncture-proof gloves to help protect from stings. Although these gloves don’t protect all potential sting sites, they decrease the risk of accidental envenomation when handling the fish.

Puncture-proof gloves are a great way to decrease your risk of getting stung. Photo by Eric Billips
Puncture-proof gloves are a great way to decrease your risk of getting stung. Photo by Eric Billips

Just in case, know what to do if you get stung.

Even if you follow all the safety precautions, sometimes mistakes happen. Immediate first response can help decrease pain and swelling, so have a plan in place if you or anyone you’re with is going to be handling lionfish. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recommends immersing the wound in hot (but not scalding) water for about 30 minutes as soon as possible after the sting occurs – this helps denature the lionfish venom and decrease pain.

If necessary, remove any spines still located in the wound. Lionfish stings are rarely fatal, but in extreme cases nausea, vomiting, and allergic reactions can result, so monitor symptoms closely. One spear fisherman swore that if someone had offered to amputate his stung foot, he would have accepted the invitation gladly.

On the other hand, a divemaster I spoke with said he barely noticed the pain when he was stung, and didn’t experience any swelling or adverse effects. Ultimately, everyone seems to respond to stings differently. Most people I talked to experienced some pain and swelling for anywhere from a few hours to a few days.

The important thing to remember is this: the more you know about stings, the more effectively you can prevent them. Pay attention to your lionfish at all times and have a plan in place in case you or a friend gets stung. There are quite a few examples of people who have dealt with large quantities of lionfish and have never been stung, proving that with proper handling and a bit of luck, you can avoid envenomation. But remember, on the off chance you do get pricked, you’ll at least have a great lionfish war-story to tell your friends.

NEXTTop 5 Myths About Lionfish


Related Post:

Saving the Reef: Lionfish in Florida

Lionfish, a brightly-colored, spiny fish that are not native to Florida, are taking over our reefs. How can we fight off this alien invasion? Floridians have come together to fight them off. Find out how.

Erin Spencer is a National Geographic Young Explorer Grantee and an undergraduate student at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Her research focuses on local responses to invasive lionfish in the Florida Keys, mainly highlighting individuals who are developing unique ways to address the lionfish problem. Previously, she interned in the National Geographic Digital Media Travel department.
  • Judy Joyner

    Such an informative article..great job Erin. You really look like you are have a terrific time and your parents are so proud of you-your Mom told me that!

  • J2das

    Damn those things are no laughing matter.

  • Codifex

    Nice article, useful information, great smile.

  • Saeed

    Great job dear Erin. I knew that Lionfish is dangerous but didn’t know anything else, so this article is perfect. The only thing I didn’t understand is the word “envemonation” in the article. I searched a lot to find the meaning, but all failed. Do you mean “envenomation”. Hope to hear from you.

  • RJ de Pedro

    I enjoyed the article, and we applaud anyone’s effort to get involved in the fight against the lionfish (Pterois volitans or Pterois miles) invasion, but I found a few points that need to be addressed. Our group, Proyecto Pterois, is involved in lionfish research and control, so developing a protocol for handling venomous stings was one of our first concerns. 

    A Pterois sting can be extremely painful but the effect will depend on the body’s reaction and the amount of venom that enters the tissue. If the victim receives multiple stings more toxins enter the body, the effect of the venom increases and the need for medical attention becomes critical. While the effects described in the article will generally only last from hours to days depending on the individual’s reaction and the amount of toxins, if the person is allergic the sting can be fatal if immediate and appropriate medical attention is not provided. It is important for the person stung to relax, to reduce the spread of the toxin. 

    The wound should be cleaned with disinfectants and triple antibiotic cream before starting the soak, taking care not to rub the wound, which can push in spine fragments. You should never try to remove fragments, and should let medical personnel remove them. The warm water soak should begin as soon as possible after the sting, before the toxins start traveling through the tissue, and the water temperature should stay between 110F and 114F, for the soak to be effective against the toxins. 

    If you have any concerns about the sting or the victim’s symptoms, a call to the CDC is advisable. A Pterois sting is manageable, with preparation and quick appropriate action. 

    Don’t let concern about being stung keep you from going after those invasive lionfish.

  • James B. Wood

    There are better tools to remove a lionfish from a spear than those medical gloves. To use those gloves, you have to get near the lionfish and those gloves only offer protection on one side. Tools like the Frapper and Zookeeper keep the spines well away from divers hands and bodies. There are also special containment bags that add additional safety.

    James B. Wood PhD
    Atlantic Lionfish on FaceBook

    PS Please do not feed speared lionfish to predators. You are not training them to go out and hunt healthy lionfish but you are training them to associate humans with a free lunch.

  • Poisson Lion

    Right ! Come and support us in French West Indies :

  • SaltwaterDave

    I was stung for the second time in 4 days yesterday. The first one occurred on my left hand middle knuckle at a depth of 100 feet. It went through the finger with and entrance and exit hole, this while wearing the nylon/latex dipped gloves. I would rate the pain a 5 on a scale to 10. The second sting was 4 days later in between the joints on the interior side of my tumb at a depth of 125 feet. At depth it wasn’t too painful but by the time I got to the topside it was a 10! And to date is the most painful injury I have ever had. The one thing that I would like to pass on about this experience is HOT water. There is an endless supply of it cooling your motor! Figure out how to get to the hot water. The water that you see peeing from the motor is not as hot as what is going right over the block of the motor, collect some in a bucket and add cooler seawater to bring it down to a tolerable level. By the time my sting came down from a 10 to a 7 I had 2nd degree burns from the water, and I was thankful for them! I wound up going to the ER because of the pain and swelling. They did an Xray but found nothing, they put me on antibiotics, steroids, pain killers and suggested a good antihistamine. Today my hand is still twice the size of the other one, the swelling is such that I can not see my knuckles. But the pain is down to a 3 on a scale of 10. Lots of ice!

  • Katherine

    loin fish is so dangerous ,yet you still can handle it! Your such a Pro!

  • allan

    This fish is highly venomes.

  • deeeeeeeeeeeee

    No comment.

  • Randy

    Let us start with how tasty they are. Amazing sushi and you know its fresh. Hog Fish good. I dive take scissors and use a spear ploe with Trident 3 prong tips, round not flat. This enables you control the fish as not to spin on the shaft. This makes it easier and safer to cut off the spines. I cut off everything tail fin first. Takes the kick right out of em. Then drop it in my lobster bag and move on. I found filing down the barbs on the tip make it easier to knock the little ones off. The local nurse sharks like them and often swim up on you for a free lunch. A far as the sting I got it once, I don’t think it was the full dose it hurt for a couple of hours 4 out of a 10, swelling went away that night.

  • Dwight donaldson

    I’m Currently In Pain Writing This Comment,Got Stung On The Left Leg Right Above The Knee. It’s On Fire….Got Stung About 5Hrs Ago And I Didn’t Get The Chance To Put The Affected Area In Hot Water. Am Wondering Now If It’s Too Late To Do So. Great Experience Though Plus They Are Very Tasty Esp Wen Them Are Browned Stewed,Real Jamaican Style…Can’t Wait To Eat The One That Stung Me….This Definatly Won’t Stop Me From Hunting Them….Lol

  • gary daniels

    I was stung on the hand at the wrist by way of a slip while the speared fish was in the boat. There were 5 spots that began to bleed, and without the after the fact knowledge of applying warm water, as soon as the swelling started I iced the hand as my bother Google searched such stings. It wasn’t long before the pain set in – and with my very high tolerance for pain – I would still rate it up there with my broken wrist. It has now been almost two days and my hand is still swollen like a tick, and there has been loss of skin and blistering in the affected area. The pain was almost completely gone in 12 hours, and aside from the swelling and skin irritation, the hand is only tender to the gentle massage I’m using to bring blood-flow to the area. I am considering seeking medical attention – such as a tetanus shot – later today; it has been about 40 hours since the sting.

  • Scott

    I was stung 6 hours ago snorkelling off Reunion Island, i got 4 spines on the top of my ankle as I swam over a very shallow part of the reef, I didn’t initially see the fish but I felt it. I can honestly say the pain is crippling. Iv had ice on it the whole time and I am still destroyed. I take it ice was a poor choice. Thanks for the article.

  • Keino

    A just got stung about 2hrs ago on my right ankle and I’m telling it’s not my first being stung but this time around the pain is crazy I just not long read the article and trying out the hot water on it but it’s starting to feel better the pain is still there but int as much… Getting stung this time just makes me want to get how there and kill every lionfish I see… Thanks for the tip tho 🙂

  • amber

    i got stung by a sting ray before and it hurts so much im now really scared to go in the ocean

  • corey

    I got stung last year while out spearfishing. The fish my friend shot slipped down the pole while I was bringing it into the boat and stuck my right in the left forearm. There were about 5 minutes between my sting and the excruciating pain that radiated through my lower arm. The best way to describe it is like being injected with liquid fire. Beside the usual symptoms I experienced muscle weakness to the point I had difficulty driving the boat afterward. Unfortunately for me the only pain reliever at my disposal came in the form of stubbies- Red Stripe. I soldiered through the rest of the day so my visitors could enjoy the fishing trip, but my god was I suffering. Never again will I be so careless when handling one of those bastards again.

  • Kylie

    I noticed how a lot of you are in a warm place… meanwhile we still have snow in March up here

  • Kylie

    You all are in such beautiful places! Meanwhile we still have snow in March up here in New Jersey

  • Maynor Monnar

    I was snorkeling,in Puerto Cortes Harbour yesterday(May8,2015),and I hooked a lionfish with a hookstick.As I was making lionfish fillets,I got overconfident and one of the dorsal spines stung my right index finger.Very painful! Next time,I’ll be more careful!

  • DyvLyf

    My addition to the article is: ADD EPSOM SALT TO THE HOT WATER WHILE SOAKING! I was stung for the 2nd time today. The first time (the sting was on the meaty part of my left palm) was almost like nothing, pain level of 2 on a scale of 0-10, but this time (the sting was between my hand and middle knuckle on my right index finger) it was a 10! It was bad enough for me to take strong narcotic pain medicine even though I’ve been sober for 4 years. After 6 hours of soaking it in near-scalding water, the pain was down to an 8. A friend suggested that I add Epsom salt to the hot water. I did and it made a HUGE difference! Within an hour the pain was down to a level 4 out of 10 and the swelling is almost completely gone.

    Lionfish beware: I’m coming for you!

  • DeepShade

    I was stung in 2015 while catching lobster. I barely noticed it. Maybe I did not get a full dose of the venom, however, after reading some of the horror stories above, I will definitely by more careful.

  • ROBBIE Martens

    Got stung this morning on the tip of my finger,wasn’t quite sure what it was at first. I was taking my daughter out snorkeling in 6 foot of water. Swam down to point at a small lobster and thought for a second that it flushed up and poked me, but as time went by I realized I’ve been poked many times before and it wasn’t like this. Not quite sure what had happened so I squeeze my finger hoping to get whatever was in there out but nothing worked,just swelled and throbbing , felt like getting stung by three yellow jackets at the same time. After a couple of hours the pain subsided.

  • tymir

    ive went snorkling i found a lion fish it was swimming toward me because i ate its mom and stinged me then i killed it but it still hurt really badly

  • Darren

    Got stung 10 hours ago it’s just starting to not hurt as much . But that could be the pain killers .
    Wow it was the most intense pain I’ve felt lasted about 7 hours not very awkward and swollen and hurts if I bump it . Not cool Lion . Not cool

  • Emoji


  • Ryan

    Many years ago I was cleaning a lion fish aquarium when one fish went vertical and moved towards my hand as I cleaned the glass and it got me. The pain was intense, my hand almost doubled in size. On the upside my reactions to wasp strings and other insect bites seem to have been reduced – maybe the toxin released some kind of immunity in my body?

  • John Robson

    I speared a big (18 inch) lionfish under a reef 3 weeks ago. Got it back to the boat and was trying to get a girl to move away so I could put it on the swim platform. It barely touched me in my thumb with one spine. 10 minutes later I was in excruciating pain for at least 3 hours. It just kept getting worse and worse. It felt like someone smashed my hand with a sledgehammer and lit it on fire. After 3 hours when it stopped getting worse, I started to relax. The pain was not manageable. It blew up like a balloon the next day but the pain was almost totally gone. Hope I never get hit again.

  • ruby

    I am doing a paper on lion fish. what is the most common problom

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