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.

One thought 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.


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