Treating Saltwater Catfish Sting

A public service announcement about catfish stings that other websites don’t tell you.

I am back from vacation! It was a great vacation other than my wife getting spined through the foot by a saltwater catfish while fishing the Gulf of Mexico. The night prior (1 AM) to the incident, I had spotted a frenzy of small sharks around the pier so I convinced Luiza that we had an opportunity for shark if we fished late at night with cut baits.  The next night we walked out to the pier at about ten PM and I cast out while Luiza and her mother rigged their lines, and to my surprise, I had a bite that resulted in a bullish fight almost immediately—I caught a five-pound catfish. Before Luiza would get her line in the water I would catch another, and another, and even though I wasn’t fishing for catfish it was still fun to have something give fight (for the first half hour). For the next hour we caught these catfish left and right and was beginning become weary—but as luck would have it, Luiza was seriously spined before we decided to give it a rest.

While trying to remove a hard lodged hook, Luiza used her foot to try to hold the catfish still on the floor of the pier (need I say more?)—the spine went through the sole of her sandal, her foot, and out the other side. She calmly told me the catfish was stuck to her foot and I advised her to remove her foot from the sandal (trying to get her to come off the spine) while holding the catfish still.  She was scared to pull off the spine but then she realized she had to, and did—it was about like pulling a dagger slowly out of the foot. The doctor later told us that that point had been a critical operation on our part that might have saved Luiza from the surgical removal of the barb, which would have likely broken off (being such a deep penetration) into her foot had she not been so calm and precise in removing it.

As it goes, catfish have a venomous slime coating and their stings are very painful—some have claimed it to be the worst pain (a nurse that treated Luiza claimed catfish injuries tend to be worse than stingrays). Luiza’s situation was different than most because the spine didn’t merely prick her but went clear through the foot. We determined through the internet that Luiza was in for a painful night but that the injury wasn’t critical—we were on a remote island with no stores, no doctors, no boat—and the water taxi didn’t start operating until the morning.

Though we read plenty on saltwater catfish injuries, Luiza was in intense pain and convinced she needed to see a doctor—at sunrise we called for the water taxi and took Luiza to a mainland walk-in clinic. The doctor had treated “several” catfish injuries as well as stingray injuries, which he regarded as being very similar—he thought Luiza’s injury was the worst he had seen. After a hot water bath, antibiotics, a prescription for oxycodeine, a tetanus shot, and X-rays to ascertain that no part of the spine remained in the wound, Luiza is convinced that the hot water bath did the most.

While we had read on the internet that we should soak the wound in warm water, nobody offered an explanation, so we failed to see the significance. It turns out that the venom is heat sensitive and its enzymes break down with high temperatures. “Warm” water is really a misnomer as the doctor insisted the water “be is hot as she can take it”. Had Luiza known the significance of the “warm water” treatment and its proper use (use hot water)—she believes the pain would have subsided faster and we might have avoided a day at the doctor’s office and hospital. Nevertheless, I am thoroughly impressed with the consideration given to us by the medical establishment at Englewood, Florida.

Luiza has asked me to write about this incident because better information wasn’t available when we searched for it. Here is what I can tell you: use hot water (but don’t scold yourself) and despite what some websites say, it seems rather rare for the spine (or fragments) to actually become dislodged in you. However, if the spine is removed with stress or from an awkward angle, then consider it with greater probability. We recommend soaking the wound in really really warm water for several hours and holding out for a good day—but hey, if you’re in pain see a doctor! We are not medical professionals and assume no responsibility.

Good luck and best regards,