Getting Stuck on Sea Urchins

Out for an afternoon dive, a diver was distracted by multicolored sea urchins she found along a rocky ridge. Eager to see them up close and capture some images of their red and purple spines, she approached, her camera ready. Upon getting closer to the sea urchins she felt a stabbing pain in her left hand, and sure enough, several long spines protruded from her hand. The pain was immediate, forcing her to cut her dive short.   

Sea urchins are round, spiny creatures found on rocky marine coastlines and in shallow water around the globe. They can be a range of colors — from black to rich purple to bright red — and contact with their spines can be extremely painful.

Very few species of sea urchins are toxic, but the puncture wounds they cause are instantly painful and often involve redness or swelling. Because urchins live in shallow water, it’s common for people to step on them — or for children to grab them, not realizing they sting.

The puncture sites are often marked by blue-black bruises. Deeper wounds may cause muscle aches, shock, intense fatigue and even localized paralysis.

Treatment for sea urchin spine punctures is simple: Begin by removing the spines using tweezers. Exercise caution with extraction, though, as the spines are fragile and break easily. Once the spines are removed, wash the area with warm water and soap. Additional first aid should be based upon symptoms.

Soaking the area in hot water (though not uncomfortably hot) may provide some pain relief. Over-the-counter pain medications could also help. If serious symptoms are noted, seek medical attention. Untreated sea urchin stings have been associated with serious complications — including respiratory failure — but this is rare.

Once the wound is clean, do not attempt to seal it closed (e.g., with tape or glue). Puncture wounds are especially prone to infection, particularly in marine environments.  Pain could linger for several days, but if the area is still painful after five to seven days, it could be infected. If this happens, call your doctor.   

The best way to prevent sea urchin spine injuries is to stay aware — both in and out of the water. View these creatures from afar. If you’re near a shallow tidal pool, note if any urchins are present and steer divers (and children or pets) away.

Additional tips on how to observe marine life can be found in DAN’s guide on hazardous marine life. And, should you suffer an injury from any critter, DAN’s insurance coverage has you covered.