People are naturally fascinated by venomous animals and often very curious about the effects their venom might have on people they bite or sting. Any marine aquarium hobbyist who’s kept a lionfish, rabbitfish, saltwater catfish, or other fish species equipped with venomous spines, can attest to this curiosity, as they’ve probably been asked time and again by people observing their tank to describe how painful the fish’s sting might be or whether its venom is potentially deadly.
The trouble with these questions is that there isn’t always a straightforward answer to them. Besides, it’s generally not a good idea to make assumptions about how someone’s body might react to being envenomated by a given species. Let’s explore why this is true a bit further:
The pain comparison
How painful is a lionfish sting? Is it the same as a bee sting? Which sting hurts more: a foxface’s or a leaf scorpionfish’s? It’s understandable that people ask these kinds of questions, but anyone who tries to answer them definitively just isn’t being honest. Why do I say this?
First, people’s perceptions of pain are highly subjective. If you take any group of 10 people, give each a rap on the knuckles with a ruler (ala Sister Elizabeth Marie), and then ask them to describe their pain, you’ll probably get 10 different answers—ranging anywhere from mild to excruciating. Heck, it’s hard enough to get two people to agree on how painful a bee sting is, let alone find a meaningful way to compare the perceived painfulness of a bee sting to that of a venomous fish.
Second, the degree to which a sting causes pain can vary depending on the severity of the sting, the amount of venom injected, the location of the sting on the body, the body’s unique physiological response to the presence of the venom, and various other factors.
The degree of deadliness
Now, there’s no question that some venomous fish pack an extremely potent venom and are much more capable than others of causing death in people. For instance, I’d far and away rather be stung by the Siganus unimaculatus (onespot foxface) in my tank than by Synanceia horrida (the horrid stonefish) or one of its congeners. Still, it’s unwise to make assumptions about the potential lethality of a species’ venom.
The danger here isn’t in overestimating how dangerous envenomation by a particular species might be, but in underestimating it. Different people react to venom in different ways. Take a bee, wasp, hornet, or fire ant sting for example. For most people, running afoul of stinging insects is merely a painful inconvenience, but for those who happen to be allergic to their venom, a simple sting can lead to potentially deadly anaphylaxis.
Be wary of amateur medical advice
That brings me to my next and final point: Because reactions to venom can vary so significantly from one individual to the next, it’s never a good idea to rely on catch-all advice dispensed by other hobbyists on how to manage a sting. If you’re ever stung or bitten by a venomous species, the prudent course is to seek medical attention promptly. Remember, in addition to dealing with the immediate effects of the venom itself, you also have to consider the risk of an allergic response as well as the potential for secondary infection at the wound site. All of these concerns are best dealt with under the care of a physician.