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Basic First Aid for Stings, Bites, and Burns

Basic First Aid for Stings, Bites, and Burns

Basic First Aid for Stings, Bites, and Burns

Divers have a tendency to bump into different things that over millennia have built up defenses to those trying to touch or harm them. Many of these things sting, bite, or give similar effects to burns. It is an inevitability that you will have a run-in with something like that as you spend more time in the water. There are some things you can do to prevent these interactions being too harmful, and there are ways to deal with these issues. We will be looking into both prevention tactics as well as proper basic first aid treatment methods for some of these issues. 


Basic First Aid for Stings

Stings are the most common of the three injuries we will be covering in this post. There is a wide range of what constitutes a sting. Jellyfish are fairly common, but have a wide range of effects depending on the species. Some jellyfish do not sting at all, some sting and result in mild discomfort, and in some parts of the world there are jellyfish that have fatal stings. Jellyfish have tentacles covered in microscopic nematocysts, which are stinging cells. Jellyfish stings are best treated with hot water poured over the sting or, if you have it, distilled vinegar or ammonia applied with a spray bottle. The spray bottle method of treatment is deceptive in how it works. It does not prevent the stinging cells from stinging you. It actually causes all of the stinging cells to be activated simultaneously, thereby preventing them from being a prolonged issue in the future.

Peeing on a jellyfish sting does not help alleviate pain. Pee is not sterile, and you could get it infected.


Venomous Fish Spines

Non-jellyfish stings are not microscopic, but are the results of barbs or spines. These can be placed into two broad categories, venomous and non venomous. An example of a venomous sting would be a lion fish. In the eastern United States, these are an invasive species that many areas have placed incentives on exterminating. The problem is these fish have venomous spines on several parts of their bodies that can result is terrible pain and swelling on the afflicted body part. The venom that is injected is a type of protein that needs to break down in order to stop causing pain in the individual, which makes it extremely difficult to treat. You pretty much just have to ride out the pain.


Basic First Aid for Venomous Fish Spines

Many people have the reaction to put this type of injury on ice. Ice is, like pee, a terrible idea. This causes your pores to close up, and additionally preserves the protein which is causing the pain. The best solution is hot water (as hot as you can stand) or distilled vinegar. The problem is that it is difficult to find hot water distantly offshore, unless you are creative. Boats tend to run off of some type of engine, and these engines tend to have a raw water cooling system, meaning they pull water from the ocean and cool the engine through transferring and expelling hot water. You can use that water and collect it to warm the affected body part. We do not recommend directly applying this water as it can cause burns. Instead, put it in a secondary container to cool off slightly first.



The reality behind bites is  that most of them don't happen maliciously, but instead because a fish is freaking out on the end of a spear. Shark bites are still something you need to consider in prepping your first aid kit, but the best way to deal with them is prevention for any of these kinds of issues. To prevent small fish from biting you or hitting you with their spines you just need to handle them properly with a good pair of gloves. Try to handle the fish from their belly and gills rather than their dorsal fins or back. Avoiding sharks is usually straightforward as well, as long as you are vigilant and read their behavior.


First Aid for Small Bites

Even with avoidance and prevention tactics, the reality is that things happen and sometimes you need to treat minor or major injuries. In the case of a fish bite or non-venomous spine, you need to clean the injury as best you can to prevent infection. Hydrogen peroxide or betadine are the best options for thoroughly cleaning out small puncture wounds from bites from smaller fish. 


Shark Bites

Shark bites can be a much more traumatic issue. Depending on the severity of the bite, it could be potentially life threatening in a very short period of time. You should definitely go through some organized first aid training if you want to be prepared to deal with this kind of injury. The most important thing to have on the boat for a shark bite or the major hemorrhage injury is a tourniquet. To properly apply a tourniquet you need to place the tourniquet above the injury about four inches (10 cm) below the next major joint. You need to tighten the tourniquet down tight enough that it stops blood flow. Leave the tourniquet on and get them to medical attention as soon as possible. Also treat the injured person for shock.



There are two types of ‘burns’ you run into while diving. Some of these issues feel like burns and act like burns but are actually types of stings (like fire coral). The other type are real burns that are usually human-caused. In-water ‘burns’ are often issues like fire coral or other types of stationary living organisms in the ocean. The best way to deal with these injuries is prevention. Become familiar with the types of hazardous corals in the area you are diving in. Wearing a wetsuit or lycra skin and gloves helps to protect you from these stinging abrasions. Be careful with what you touch after you have come in contact with any of these burning corals. 


Treating Burns from Corals

If you have come in contact with a stinging coral, the pain is usually minor but there are a couple treatments that may help. Because these are types of stings technically they should be treated similarly.  White vinegar should help, and some divers recommend lemon pepper or meat tenderizer powders. All of these acids work to break down proteins, which is what needs to happen to counter act the toxins form these sings. 


Treating Real Burns

The real burns people tend to run into while diving are accidents based around boat engines. Boat engines tend to pull raw water from the ocean to transfer the heat out of the engine and expel hot water through exhausts. The water can come out of these at nearly 160-200 degrees F (70-90 C). That is hot enough to result in 3rd degree burns after a short exposure time. 

To treat major burns, the first step is to prevent further harm by moving away from the source of the burn. Next, remove any jewelry from extremities. Cover the burn with a cool, moist bandage. Elevate the burned area and treat for shock. Get the injured person to medical attention as soon as possible. 

For treating minor burns you may not need to seek medical treatment. Many of the steps are similar in the treatment. Run cool water over the burn and remove any jewelry from extremities. Apply a lotion or topical treatment, preferably with aloe vera or a moisturizer. Loosely bandage the burn with sterile gauze, do not use loose cotton as a bandage on burns. If needed, an over the counter pain reliever can be useful. If the condition of the injury worsens or starts to be infected, you should seek medical attention. 
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