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Catfish Sting

Last updated April 1, 2018

The catfish is a fish with cat-like whiskers (or barbels) around its mouth. It may range in size from a few centimeters to nearly 3 meters in length.


What are the other Names for this Condition? (Also known as/Synonyms)

  • Sting of the Catfish

What is Catfish Sting? (Definition/Background Information)

  • The catfish is a fish with cat-like whiskers (or barbels) around its mouth. It may range in size from a few centimeters to nearly 3 meters in length
  • Most species of catfishes have stingers near their dorsal and pectoral fins, to ward-off predators. In many species, the spines are hollow and contain no toxin. In certain catfish types, the stingers can deliver venom that can cause certain health effects in humans. However, the striped eel catfish is known to be deadly to humans
  • Catfishes are found all over the world inhabiting fresh and coastal waters. They make a major source of meat for many nations, and hence are fished (and farmed) globally. Contact with humans occurs mostly during fishing or while handling the fishing nets
  • Some Catfish Stings may have mild symptoms, while others have severe symptoms. The severity of signs and symptoms depends on the species of catfish, the amount of toxin injected, and also on the reaction of the human body to the toxin
  • Immediate medical attention has to be sought in case of severe stings. The treatment would involve removal of the spine, washing the affected area, and use of medications (topical antibiotics and painkillers). The prognosis is generally good with treatment in a majority of cases

Who gets Catfish Sting? (Age and Sex Distribution)

  • Any individual exposed to catfish are vulnerable to its sting
  • Both males and females are affected and there is no gender bias observed
  • Catfish are marine creatures found all over the world. Different species are found in different parts of the world

What are the Risk Factors for Catfish Sting? (Predisposing Factors)

The risk factors identified for Catfish Stings include:

  • Improperly holding or handling catfish
  • Fishermen and fisherwomen, while sorting fish, setting out fishing nets, pulling in the ‘catch’
  • Individuals working in catfish aquaculture
  • Swimmers, surfers, divers, and beachgoers
  • Wading in ocean waters without suitable protective clothing
  • Keeping them as pets in aquariums (exotic collection)
  • Handling dead or live catfish species

It is important to note that having a risk factor does not mean that one will get the condition. A risk factor increases ones chances of getting a condition compared to an individual without the risk factors. Some risk factors are more important than others.

Also, not having a risk factor does not mean that an individual will not get the condition. It is always important to discuss the effect of risk factors with your healthcare provider.

What are the Causes of Catfish Sting? (Etiology)

  • Catfish Stings can release a poisonous toxin into the human skin through their spine, which can affect the human body
  • Depending on the amount of poison injected, the severity of the signs and symptoms is dictated
  • Some catfish only have hollow stingers, but they may still inflict deep gashes on the arms or legs

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Catfish Sting?

The severity of signs and symptoms of Catfish Sting depends on the following factors:

  • The type or species of catfish
  • The amount of toxin injected
  • The reaction of the human body to the toxin

The signs and symptoms of Catfish Sting may be mild or severe and may include:

  • Local injury, cuts, gashes, and laceration; usually on the arms and legs
  • Puncture wounds with severe bleeding
  • Rashes on the skin (red-colored welts), bruising
  • Swelling of the wound
  • Sweating
  • Headaches
  • Allergic shock or reaction, in some cases
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue

How is Catfish Sting Diagnosed?

A Catfish Sting is diagnosed through the following tools:

  • A physical examination of the affected site by the physician is normally sufficient to diagnose the condition
  • In addition, the symptoms exhibited by the individual may be carefully observed
  • The individual may be asked to provide an account (history) of the events that occurred (what took place and how)
  • Blood tests consisting of complete blood count (CBC) and electrolytes

Many clinical conditions may have similar signs and symptoms. Your healthcare provider may perform additional tests to rule out other clinical conditions to arrive at a definitive diagnosis.

What are the possible Complications of Catfish Sting?

The complications that may arise from a Catfish Sting may include:

  • Bleeding and skin ulceration can cause secondary bacterial or fungal infections to develop
  • Anaphylaxis type allergic reaction
  • Respiratory distress

Very rarely, Catfish Stings are known to result in fatalities.

How is Catfish Sting Treated?

The treatment measures for Catfish Sting may include:

  • The first line of treatment is often to remove the stingers/spines by gently pulling them out with a pair of tweezers; breaking the spines must be avoided
  • The use of very hot water can help reduce the potency of the venom, and hence, the wound is soaked for up to an hour in hot water. This can also help reduce the pain intensity
  • Once the spines are removed, the affected area is washed with soap and fresh water
  • The wound is left uncovered to heal
  • Topical antiseptics may help prevent wound infection
  • Pain relieving medications (acetaminophen) as required
  • Tetanus vaccination is usually required, if it is not up to date
  • In case of severe stings, it could be a medical emergency and prompt attention has to be provided. The treatment measures may include:
    • CPR may be provided as necessary, breathing assistance
    • Stabilizing the blood pressure
    • Pain control medications, steroids
  • Proper follow-up care and check-ups may be required, especially to monitor for any signs of infection

Note: It is always important to call the local emergency helpline number (911 in the US) without any delay.

How can Catfish Sting be Prevented?

The following factors may be considered to reduce the incidence of Catfish Stings:

  • Fishermen and fisherwomen are advised to learn the correct techniques of handling catfish, especially the smaller varieties
  • Do not ignore warnings of lifeguards or health officials at the beach
  • Wear protective clothing if you plan to swim or dive in infested areas (suitable wet skin or diver’s suit)
  • Generally be aware or watchful of the waters you are in (to the extent possible)
  • Wear protective footwear while walking on beach sand
  • When removing stingers from the body, wear suitable protective cover (such as hand gloves); avoid removing the sting with bare hands
  • Ensure safety precautions while cleaning marine animal aquariums; wear gloves
  • Marine life explorers and sea adventurers are required to carry marine first aid kit

What is the Prognosis of Catfish Sting? (Outcomes/Resolutions)

  • The prognosis of Catfish Sting is generally good with effective treatment, since a majority of the cases are mild
  • However, severe stings combined with delayed treatment may be life-threatening or can even result in death (under rare circumstances)

Additional and Relevant Useful Information for Catfish Sting:

  • Some catfish are sought after as ornamental marine collection for artificial aquaria
  • The whiskers around the catfish mouth are harmless and they do not sting
  • Typically, it is the smaller-sized catfish that cause unintentional stinging due to poor handling techniques

What are some Useful Resources for Additional Information?


References and Information Sources used for the Article:


Helpful Peer-Reviewed Medical Articles:


Reviewed and Approved by a member of the DoveMed Editorial Board
First uploaded: Dec. 26, 2015
Last updated: April 1, 2018

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