Scorpion stings — although painful — are mostly harmless. As many as 1,500 species of scorpions have been described worldwide, but only about 30 of these are considered dangerous. In the United States, only the bark scorpion, found mainly in the desert Southwest, has venom potent enough to cause severe symptoms. Elsewhere, lethal scorpion stings occur predominantly in Mexico, South America, parts of Africa, the Middle East and India.
Scorpion stings are most serious in young children, older adults and pets. In the United States, healthy adults usually don't need treatment for scorpion stings, but if your child is stung, always get immediate medical care.
Most scorpion stings in the United States cause only minor signs and symptoms, such as pain and warmth at the sting site. The venom of the bark scorpion, which is native to Arizona, New Mexico and the California side of the Colorado River, is more toxic and can be life-threatening, particularly in children.
Children who have been stung by a bark scorpion might experience:
Adults are more likely to experience:
When to see a doctor
Scorpions are arthropods — a relative of insects, spiders and crustaceans — and have changed little in the last 400 million years or so.
The average scorpion is about 3 inches (7.6 centimeters) long, but different species can be much smaller or larger. At 8 inches (20 centimeters), the African scorpion is probably the world's longest. Scorpions have eight legs and a pair of crab-like pinchers, giving them a certain fierce look. The venom is carried in a gland on the back of the tail, and when on the attack, a scorpion can flick its stinger over its head with lightning speed. The venom itself contains a complex mix of toxins that affect the nervous system (neurotoxins).
Many people think of scorpions as dangerous pests, but they play a critical role in the ecosystem, consuming large quantities of other arthropods and even small snakes and mice. They're also shy, nocturnal creatures that resist stinging unless provoked or attacked. They can control the amount of venom they release — depending on how threatened they feel — so some stings may be almost entirely venomless.
Certain factors can increase your risk of a scorpion sting:
As with stinging insects, such as bees and wasps, you can have an allergic reaction to a scorpion sting — sometimes severe enough to be life-threatening (anaphylaxis). Signs and symptoms are similar to those of bee stings and can include hives, trouble breathing, and nausea and vomiting. An allergic reaction may be wrongly attributed to the venom, which can cause different, but also dangerous, symptoms.
The very old and the very young are most likely to die of untreated venomous scorpion bites. The cause is usually heart or respiratory failure occurring some hours after the sting. Very few deaths from scorpion stings have been reported in the United States.
Preparing for your appointment
If you can find the scorpion that stung you or your child, bring it with you to the hospital. Identifying the type of scorpion may make treatment easier.
Tests and diagnosis
Your history and symptoms are usually all that your doctor needs to make a diagnosis. If you have severe symptoms, you may have blood or imaging tests to check for the effects of the venom on your liver, heart, lungs and other organs.
Treatments and drugs
Most scorpion stings don't need medical treatment. But if symptoms are severe, supportive care in a hospital is usually required. In addition to bed rest, this might include sedatives for muscle spasms and intravenous drugs to manage elevated blood pressure, agitation and pain.
An antivenin called Anascorp can be given to help treat the stings of bark scorpions. Anascorp is made from the blood plasma of horses immunized with scorpion venom. Studies show it to be effective within four hours of being administered, which can help prevent extended stays in an intensive care unit. Side effects may include vomiting, fever and rash. Some people sensitive to horse proteins could experience an allergic reaction.
Lifestyle and home remedies
If a scorpion stings you or your child, follow the suggestions below. Healthy adults may not need further treatment, and these tips can help keep children safe until they see a doctor:
Scorpions tend to avoid contact. To prevent chance meetings:
Last Updated: 2011-08-13
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