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The Truth About Getting Stung by a Lionfish

Posted by Erin Spencer in Explorers Journal on August 8, 2013

“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 envemonation 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.


Lionfish continue to populate, pose threats to coral reefs

By Annie Chambers..U.S. Army Corp of Engineers Jacksonville District

Their dorsal spines and zebra-like bodies may draw one in for a closer look. Commonly used in aquariums for show, the invasive lionfish has made its way from the South Pacific and Indian Oceans to the east coast. In the past decade, they’ve been rapidly expanding from Florida to North Carolina, as well as the Caribbean.

A red lionfish swims in the Atlantic Ocean. The aquarium trade is the most likely explanation for the invasion of the lionfish in the Atlantic Ocean.

Lionfish may live longer than 15 years and reach sizes exceeding 20 inches. Their venomous spines are capable of fending off predators and stinging humans, according to the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF), an active organization of divers and marine enthusiasts. Lionfish reproduce throughout the year, nearly every four days, and females can spawn over 2 million eggs per year.

Lionfish are venomous and have up to 18 needle-like spines.  However, the meat of the lionfish is not poisonous. If stung, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recommends treating a puncture wound by immersing it in hot water for 30-90 minutes, and seeking medical attention as soon as possible. The Poison Help Hotline at 1-800-222-1222 is available 24 hours a day.

Coral reef community population structure and dynamics are at risk as a result of the influx of lionfish. These predators out-compete other species such as fish and invertebrates for food resources and they have few known predators, according to NOAA’s Coral Reef Information System (CORIS) website.

NOAA’s experts believe that lionfish populations will continue to grow and are unable to be controlled with conventional methods. Lionfish are established along the southeastern coast of the United States, Bermuda, the Bahamas and throughout the Caribbean.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission recently waived the recreational fishing license requirement to harvest lionfish. The change allows divers to easily assist in the control of the lionfish population. This will allow people to take as many of the invasive fish as possible.
NOAA and the United States Geological Survey (USGS) as well as professional and recreational diving communities are working to help remove and control lionfish. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission encourages people to remove lionfish; they can be speared, caught in hand-held nets or caught on hook and line. Lionfish can be reported to REEF’s

Photo: NOAA


Bermuda Fire Coral..a painful experience

Millepora alcicornus is a common member of the Caribbean reefs and across the Bermuda platform. These hydrozoans are members of the family Milleporidae.  The hydrocorals can be found in varying habitats including deep reefs, surf zones and reef flats but are restricted mainly to coral reefs.  M. alcicornis gets its name fire coral from the painful stings it can inflict on Scuba divers and snorkelers.

Fire coral Fist Aid Kits


Don’t get stung without it!