Stingrays are flat, disk-shaped creatures with fins that resemble wings. Species of stingray can be either saltwater or freshwater. They’re most often associated with tropical ocean climates, and their sting is a commonly reported beachgoer injury.

A stingray’s tail is long, thin, and tapered, much like a whip. At the end of the tail are one or more barbed spines covered by a sheath. Each spine contains venom, and the stingray’s tail can pack a powerful, incredibly painful sting.

Stingrays generally aren’t dangerous — in fact, they have a reputation for being gentle. They often burrow beneath the sand in the shallows and swim in the open water. Stingrays will usually only sting when disturbed or stepped on by unaware swimmers.

Most of the time, you can avoid being stung by a stingray. But if you do experience a stingray sting, there are several things you can do immediately to start relieving the pain.

When stung by a stingray, you’ll feel immediate, severe pain at the wound site. You need to begin treating the wound right away if it’s superficial.

If the barb has punctured your throat, neck, abdomen, or chest, or has pierced completely through part of your body, don’t attempt to remove it. Seek emergency medical attention immediately.

Otherwise, remain in the ocean and pull the barb out if you can. Allow the salt water to clean the wound while applying pressure over it to both slow the bleeding and encourage the venom to come out.

Try to clear out any additional debris you might see in the cut or puncture while you’re still in the water.

Pay close attention to how you feel in the sting’s aftermath. It’s possible to have a life-threatening allergic reaction to stingray venom, which requires emergency medical care. Expect the area to swell.

Hot water kills stingray venom and may relieve the pain associated with the sting. Once you’ve determined you’re not having an allergic reaction, you might want to try soaking the sting in hot water (although some sources state there is no evidence that soaking is effective).

The ideal temperature for a soak is 110°F to 115°F (43°C to 46°C). Reheat your water every 10 minutes to keep it continually hot, and soak the wound for 30 to 90 minutes, or as long as it takes for the pain to subside. The hot water may also draw out venom, which resembles jelly.

Once you’ve relieved the pain, apply antibiotic ointment or cream to the wound and cover it with gauze.

If you’re stung by a stingray, you may experience these symptoms:

The following symptoms could be signs of a systemic reaction or respiratory distress and require immediate emergency medical care:

It’s possible for the heart to stop or for the body to go into shock after a stingray sting. Some people have died as a result of stings in their chests and abdomens.

If you have a puncture wound and aren’t up to date on your tetanus booster, it’s time to get it renewed.

If you’ve had the wound for a while but are slow to recover, you experience redness or additional swelling at the site, or the site begins to ooze pus, get treatment right away. The site may be infected, and your doctor may prescribe antibiotics (oral or intravenous) to treat it.

Because stingrays camouflage themselves under sand to hunt for prey, they can be hard to spot and easy to step on if you don’t know what to look for.

Once it’s been threatened, a stingray will whip its tail in defense — which can reach up and over its head — leaving a laceration or puncture wound in your skin.

When a stingray whips its tail at you, one or more of its spines may pierce your skin. The sheath around each spine then breaks apart and releases venom into the wound and surrounding tissue.

Stingrays most often sting people in their feet, ankles, and legs, but sometimes a sting may occur elsewhere on the body.

To avoid a stingray sting, shuffle your feet in the sand as you wade through shallow water. This will give stingrays a warning that you’re coming their way. Another option is to throw shells or small rocks into the water ahead of you as you wade.

If you do seek emergency medical care, your healthcare providers will closely inspect your wound. They will need to remove any debris left in the wound from the spines or the sheath. They may take X-rays of the sting site to determine whether all the debris has been cleared. Spine and sheath fragments are visible on an X-ray.

You might receive an antibiotic via prescription or IV, as well as stitches if the wound is large or deep. You may also receive a tetanus booster.

In some cases, you might require surgery after a stingray sting to remove dead tissue or to repair a severe wound.

For most people, stingray stings heal within a few weeks. Expect localized numbness and tingling around the wound site during the healing period.

Location of the sting, amount of venom in the tissue, extent of tissue damage, and promptness of treatment will affect healing time. If you have to undergo surgery after the sting, your recovery will take more time.