Medical toxicologist Anne-Michelle Ruha, MD, of the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix, gives insight about scorpion envenomation, symptoms and treatment.
Which scorpions are dangerous to people in Arizona?
In North America, only one scorpion is dangerous to humans – the Arizona bark scorpion (Centruroides sculpturatus).
It is small, just a couple inches in length, and is the only scorpion that produces envenomation syndrome. Envenomation is when a toxin from a venomous creature is injected into a person, who then develops clinical signs and symptoms that range from mild to severe.
There are other scorpion species in the Southwest that can sting you, causing pain, skin irritation or swelling, but no other species in the U.S. causes envenomation.
Are scorpion stings common?
Scorpion stings are common in Arizona. The Poison Control Centers in Arizona receive around 20,000 calls a year concerning scorpion stings, though this probably represents a fraction of the total number of stings.
When you are stung by a scorpion, you won’t necessarily develop envenomation. Many people are stung and don’t have any effects.
However, there are people who are more at risk of having severe symptoms. Young children and older adults are the most vulnerable. But the vast majority of scorpion stings, more than 95%, the side effects are minor.
How can you prevent scorpion stings, especially for young children?
Many people, especially parents of infants or young children, are extremely afraid of scorpions.
A few tips to prevent scorpion stings:
- Place glass bottles around the legs of a crib or bed. Bark scorpions, the only species that causes envenomation, cannot climb up glass.
- Make sure no curtain or fabric that a scorpion can climb hangs into the crib or bed.
- Shake out shoes and clothes before putting them on.
What are the signs and symptoms of a scorpion sting?
When someone is stung by a scorpion, the most common symptom is pain. It’s usually a burning pain localized at the site of the sting, similar to a bee sting.
The next most common symptom is the spread of pain through the body. For example, some people wake up in the middle of the night with numbness, tingling or burning pain throughout their whole body because they were stung by a scorpion while they slept.
It’s when a sting causes symptoms worse than pain that we become concerned and consider it to be neurotoxic envenomation. Those symptoms include:
- Trouble coordinating muscle activity
- Difficulty breathing
- Extra salivation
- Double vision
- High heart rate
Anybody with these severe symptoms from a scorpion sting needs to seek medical attention.
What should you do if you’re stung by a scorpion?
If you are stung by a scorpion, call the Poison Control Center (1-800-222-1222). They are highly skilled at talking you through next steps depending on your symptoms.
If you’re having mild pain from a scorpion sting, you can put ice on it and take over-the-counter medicine, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
Do not treat a scorpion sting as an allergic reaction. Never take diphenhydramine (Benadryl), other antihistamines or use epinephrine (EpiPen), all of which can worsen some of the symptoms of scorpion envenomation, such as increased heart rate and high blood pressure. Scorpion envenomation is not an allergic reaction.
Why is scorpion venom dangerous to people?
Scorpion venom is very complex. It contains many different components that are still being studied. Toxins in venom that are dangerous to humans are neurotoxins, more specifically sodium channel toxins.
These toxins open the sodium channels in our neurons for longer than they should be, increasing the release of neurotransmitters from the neurons. That increased release of neurotransmitters ends up creating the envenomation symptoms, including neuromuscular and ocular effects in humans.
Is there a scorpion antivenom?
Yes, we have antivenom in Arizona, and it is very effective. It’s made with the venom of similar Mexican scorpion species.
If someone with severe scorpion envenomation visits an emergency department in Arizona, they are candidates for receiving the antivenom.
Antivenom works by binding to the venom in the blood and deactivating it – it essentially works like antibodies against scorpion venom. The venom is neutralized and symptoms resolve very quickly after antivenom administration.
Can you die if you’re stung by a scorpion?
I have to say yes because it is possible and people have died from scorpion stings, but it is extremely rare and unlikely. In almost all cases and with medical attention for severe envenomation, scorpion stings are not life threatening.
About the Author
Anne-Michelle Ruha, MD, is a professor in the Internal Medicine and Emergency Medicine departments at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix.
She is medical toxicologist, diagnosing and managing patients who have some sort of exposure to a toxin. This can include and isn’t limited to: medication overdoses, snake bites, carbon monoxide poisoning and scorpion strings.