Sometimes contact with harmful flora or fauna underwater is either unexpected or unavoidable, and in these cases, it’s important to know how to react.
Marine life injuries are incredibly rare, considering how many organisms in the marine environment can cause harm to humans. Usually, divers can prevent marine life injuries by adhering to the general diving rule, “no touching, teasing or taking.” Sometimes, however, contact with harmful flora or fauna underwater is either unexpected or unavoidable, and in these cases, it’s important to know how to react. Being able to deliver effective first aid not only provides pain relief, but can also — in serious cases —vastly improve a victim’s chances of survival. Here we’ll take a look at four potential marine life injuries and the first-aid procedures required to treat each one.
Of the myriad jellyfish species in our oceans, some are stingless and some can be fatal. When stung by a jellyfish, the seriousness of the situation depends on several factors, including the species, the anatomical location of the sting, the size of the area affected and whether or not the victim is allergic to the animal’s toxins. Many jellyfish stings do not require professional medical attention, but if the victim experiences severe symptoms, including chest pains and difficulty breathing, emergency medical services must be contacted immediately. Similarly, if the species is a potentially lethal one (like Australia’s infamous box jellyfish), professional medical care is imperative; and if the victim is particularly old or young, or the sting covers a large area, calling emergency services is also advisable. In general, however, first aid for all jellyfish stings follows the same guidelines. The victim should be treated out of the water, and kept as still as possible to prevent more toxins from being released and spreading around the body.
If there are any visible tentacles on the victim’s body, these should be removed using tweezers, forceps, or gloves to avoid further stings. After the tentacles have been removed, the best way to clear any remaining stinging cells, or nematocysts, is to apply shaving cream, and use a razor or credit card to carefully scrape them from the skin. If you do not have these tools on hand, use salt water to flush the affected area — never fresh water, as the latter may cause unfired nematocysts to release their poison. Contrary to popular urban myth, urine should also be avoided for the same reason, as should alcohol. Some sources (including DAN) recommend using household vinegar for sting relief while others, such as the British National Health Service, advise not to for fear that the vinegar may also trigger remaining nematocysts. Instead, it is recommended to either apply an ice pack to the affected area or to soak it in hot water to afford the victim pain relief after all tentacles and stinging cells have been removed.
Lionfish, Scorpionfish and Stonefish Injuries
All three of these fish species are highly venomous, and have spines on their dorsal, anal and pectoral fins capable of injecting venom into a diver’s skin. Typically, injuries from any one of these fish require emergency care; in the case of the stonefish, professional medical attention is compulsory. Of the three, the stonefish’s venom is the most potent and can be fatal — victims will require anti-venom injections as part of their treatment. First-aid care is the same for both lionfish and scorpionfish injuries. Once the diver is safely out of the water and in a stable environment, use tweezers to gently remove any spine fragments embedded in the wound. Then, soak the wound in hot water — as hot as the victim can tolerate without burning the skin. These species’ venom is protein-based, and begins to breakdown and deactivate with the application of heat, so soaking in hot water will not only relieve pain but also reduce the effects of the venom itself.
If possible, immerse the affected area for at least 30 minutes. If the wound is located somewhere that makes immersion difficult, use hot washcloths to the same effect. Hot-water treatment may also help in the case of stonefish injuries, and is advisable while waiting for medical care to arrive. After soaking, disinfect the wound, apply antiseptic ointment and take over-the-counter pain medication to help alleviate pain. Divers should seek immediate medical attention after exposure to the venom of any of these species, as some complications may take time to manifest. These can be serious, and include anaphylactic shock as a result of an allergic reaction, shock, infection, tissue death and paralysis. These wounds can take weeks, or even months, to heal.
Coral Cuts and Abrasions
These are perhaps the most common diver injuries, and can occur whenever contact is made with the reef. Coral is often sharp, and those who sustain coral cuts or grazes will find that they take an inordinately long time to heal and often become infected. This happens because the coral is coated with a thin film of living organisms, which tear away from the main structure on contact and contaminate the victim’s wounds. To treat coral cuts and abrasions, first stem any significant blood flow using direct pressure. Once the bleeding has stopped, make sure to remove any remaining coral fragments by flushing with clean fresh water. Use antibacterial soap or hydrogen peroxide mixed with water to disinfect the wound, and then rinse again with fresh water. After the wound is clean, apply antibiotic cream and cover with a sterile, non-adhesive dressing. The affected area should be cleaned and re-dressed twice a day until the wound has healed. Although emergency medical care is not usually required for coral injuries, the victim should be closely monitored for signs of shock or aggravated infection. Extreme redness, swelling, excess pus, swollen lymph glands or any other signs of fever or infection should be treated immediately.
Marine Life Injuries from Large Animal Bites
When it comes to marine life injuries, most people automatically imagine shark attacks. Truthfully, the likelihood of receiving a shark bite is infinitesimally small, but there are several marine species that can inflict a nasty bite, including moray eels, barracuda and seals. Usually these species will only react aggressively in self-defense, or if they mistake a diver for prey. The severity of such injuries can range from the superficial to the fatal. In the case of more serious bites, first remove the victim from the water. Contact emergency services immediately, and then focus on providing basic life support until the professionals can take over. Apply pressure to the wound to stem blood flow, remembering to wear protective barriers if at all possible. Do not release pressure to change bandages or cloths even if they become saturated; instead, simply apply more bandages directly on top of the original ones. If the bleeding is excessive and cannot be stemmed, a tourniquet may be required and should be applied as close to the injury as possible between the wound and the heart. If not used properly, however, a tourniquet can cause other complications, so one should only be used if absolutely necessary or by someone with prior medical training.
If the bite is located on an extremity, raise it above heart level to help reduce blood flow. If a bone was broken or fractured as a result of the bite, use a splint to support and protect the injured limb. If you don’t have a purpose-made splint on hand, you should be able to improvise one quite easily. Often, the shock and trauma of a severe bite can cause a victim to have difficulty breathing; in this case, administer oxygen and monitor continued respiration until emergency services arrive. In the event of minor bites, emergency services may not be required. Simply use direct pressure until the bleeding stops, and then rinse gently with fresh water, clean with antiseptic and apply a non-adhesive, sterile dressing. Should any infection occur, or other symptoms arise, make sure to seek medical advice immediately.
by Jessica Mcdonald