Catfish Stings

Catfish stings are common when the fish is handled or kicked. Certain catfish species produce venom in glands at the base of the dorsal spine, but most do not.

Catfish venom causes local pain, redness and swelling. Of more concern is the wound caused by the spine and the likelihood of infection. Catfish have venom glands along the stout spine of the dorsal and pectoral fin. Severe pain and inflammation occur at the site of the sting.

The pain from a catfish injury is instantaneous. It may last for several hours in the less toxic species and as long as 48 hours in the more toxic species. In addition to pain, the area around the wound will initially be pale and then turn blue, which is followed by redness and swelling of near-by tissues. The most severe reactions include swelling of the entire limb with accompanying chronically swollen lymph nodes, numbness, and risk of localized gangrene.


  • After the injury, immediately immerse the affected area in water as hot as you can stand until pain is relieved.
  • Remove spines with tweezers.
  • Scrub the wound and irrigate with fresh water.
  • Do not tape or sew the wound together.
  • The wound must be inspected for remaining spine segments and integumentary sheath material. The wound should be evaluated radio-graphically for foreign matter. If foreign matter remains, the wound should be irrigated again.
  • If repeated irrigation is unsuccessful the wound must be surgically explored and cleaned. The wound site may be infiltrated with procaine or another suitable anesthetic. If local infiltration is unsuccessful in relieving pain, intramuscular or intravenous meperidine hydrochloride may be beneficial.
  • Tetanus prophylaxis is indicated if there is any question about the tetanus status.
  • Bacitracin or triple antibiotic ointment may be applied.
  • Oral antibiotics are usually recommended for stings that become infected. If infection develops, continue antibiotics e.g. Ciprofloxacin or trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole for at least 5 days after all signs of infection have cleared. Check for drug allergy prior to starting any antibiotic.
  • Pain may be relieved with 1-2 acetaminophen (Tylenol) every 4 hours and/or 1-2 ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) every 6-8 hours. Check for drug allergy or history of adverse reactions prior to starting any medication.

Medical Advice (Q&As) on “Catfish Stings

  1. Sarah Northway

    I recently met some people who used your article to advocate soaking wounds in scalding water because they believed it was the only way to prevent gangrene. It was very very painful and did more damage than good.

    Please be more clear that “as hot add you can stand” is around 40 degrees Celsius, and that the only purpose of this step is to relieve pain, not prevent infection.

  2. Lynette

    Its been a week since the sting an my hand and wrist still hurts. I didnt go to the doctor. I did soak it and clean it.

    1. Buddy M.D. Post author

      Is the affected region red, swollen, itchy or painful? If yes, is the swelling or any other symptom increasing in size or severity?

  3. Kathy

    My husband was stung in his ring finger 2 months ago. The finger is still swollen and aches but no signs of infection. Worse in the morning. Any idea why this could be?

    1. Buddy M.D. Post author

      Any open wound? Which part of the finger shows the swelling, the whole of it, the upper soft part, any joint area?

  4. Dayna bergman

    It’s been 2 weeks since being stung by a catfish. Site is swollen and itchy. I do not have any pain and it does not hurt to touch. Is this normal? I’ve been applying topical antibiotic cream.

    1. Buddy M.D. Post author

      Need not worry if the swelling is reducing in size.

      If the swollen portion is as such or you see any pus collection there, medical treatment is required.

  5. Dave Jacobik

    I was stung December 30th in the knuckle of my middle finger. It bled a little but did not really hurt or continue bleeding. It is now almost 2 months and the area is still swollen, but no pain. Any advice?

    1. Buddy M.D. Post author

      Likely to be cellulitis.

      To need to see a doctor for examination. Appropriate antibiotics are required.

  6. Jodi

    Hello, I was stung 5 days ago in Florida on my ankle . I never seen a doctor at the time. Pain was severe, but relieved with warm water. I’ve used a topical antibiotic and washed well. However, I have, what I would call nerve pain, and loss of sensation in the top of my foot. No swelling, no redness, no heat. Just pain, with pins and needles. Is this something that will go away with time?

  7. Mike Kieffer

    I was stung in hand by gafftopsail cat when I quickly twisted pliers to unhook it. I was jabbed between index and middle fingers (closer to middle) with expected severe pain which I quickly addressed successfully.

    A month later, I have developed a bony protuberance at wound site that is making joint stiff. What is this? I do plan to get medical care.

    1. Buddy M.D. Post author

      This is likely to a fibrosed tissue mess, that occurred due chronic inflammation there. You need ot observe if it’s getting softer with time. If not, it’s better to see a doctor to resolve it.

  8. Ron Shelton

    It has been a week since i was stuck by a small catfish. It went 11/2 just above my wrist. All swelling gone but still bruised. My wrist is still in pain. How long will i have this pain. Didn’t recieve medical care.

    1. Buddy M.D. Post author

      You may take antibiotics for it.

      If you’re not taking any pills, keep a close watch on it. If you see any increase in swelling, pain or restriction of movements, the infection may be increasing inside.

      It may take 7 to 10 days for the condition to improve completely.

  9. Megan grant

    I was stung by a catfish in the knee, the pain was intense but is easing some now, it has been about 24hrs, the area is swollen, red and hot to the touch but no pus, what signs of infection should I look for?

    1. Buddy M.D. Post author

      Signs of infection-

      Increase in pain and stiffness. You’ll not be able to move the affected part.
      Increase in swelling. Frank pus may or may not be seen.

      In case you see any sign of infection, antibiotics are needed at the earliest.

      Also, assure there are no spines sticking to the affected area.


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