Treating a Sea Urchin Injury

While most divers know and respect the mantra “take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but bubbles,” there are instances when immediate contact with marine animals is unexpected or unavoidable. Tide pools and intertidal zones are great places to observe marine wildlife, but also present the risk of getting too close to something that will intentionally or inadvertently injure you. One of the most common of these is the sea urchin.

Sea urchins are related to other “harmless” sea creatures like sand dollars, sea stars, and sea cucumbers, but they have one crucial defense mechanism the others don’t: sharp spines that cover nearly every inch of their bodies. The spines themselves are not venomous, but some species have venomous glands at the base of these spines, which can be injected with the spine when it comes into contact with a predator, or into the flesh of an unwitting swimmer or diver.

The main disadvantage to being impaled by a sea urchin, besides possible envenomation, is that the spines are very brittle and can embed themselves deep into your tissues. Some sea urchin victims will have spines beneath their skin long after the initial contact, either due to the difficulty of removal or indifference to their presence. Foreign objects in your body can put you at risk for infection and other health problems, so err on the side of safety and see a doctor if you’re unable to remove the spines yourself. However, if you want to tackle it on your own, here are some tips to help you treat your wounds correctly and safely.

  • Clean the affected area. Whether you use an antiseptic cleanser, hydrogen peroxide, or just good ol’ soap and water, it is very important that you clean the puncture area to avoid any risk of bacterial infection.
  • Soak the affected area in hot water. Don’t scald yourself, but soak the affected area in the hottest water you can stand for about 20 minutes, until your skin prunes. You can even add epsom salt to boost the softening effect. Soaking in hot water is advantageous for a few reasons: it helps manage the pain, it keeps the wound clean, and it will also enable easier removal of the spines because your skin will be more pliable. If you have been envenomed and are experiencing pain from that, a vinegar soak will help neutralize the toxins and relieve some of the discomfort.
  • Careful removal. Thoroughly dry the affected area. If the spines are protruding enough that you can get ahold of them with tweezers or pliers, do so slowly and with care. People who are familiar with removing splinters with a needle may find that method to be effective with sea urchin spines, but it is crucial that you sterilize the needle prior to digging into your flesh. Sea urchin spines are brittle, and like splinters, have the potential to break into pieces as you attempt to remove them. Take care not to crush the spine with your implement, and use as steady a hand as possible.
  • Know when to let the experts handle it. If you do not think you are capable of removing the spines on your own, or have tried and not successfully removed them in their entirety, see a health professional as soon as possible. Multiple spines or deeply embedded spines are two great instances to not attempt removal yourself!
  • Aftercare. Once the spines have been removed, it is vital that you continue to care for the affected area. For a couple days after removal, continue to soak the wound in hot water, and be sure to use an antibacterial ointment and clean, fresh bandages to keep it free from infection until the puncture wounds have closed.

Images via Ron Dollete, Google Images


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Comments

  1. Stepped on a sea urchin when I was at gitmo getting out of the water during a dive while serving in the Coast Guard .I went to sick-bay they cleaned it put me on light duty for a wk and told me my body will absorb the spines ….

  2. Roy Bendell says:

    Apply lots of vinegar after a good gentle cleaning and removing any spines. Leave the compress of soaking vinegar on for as long as you can even overnight. Take a good hot tub bath and soak as long as you can as many times as you can. This should go on until you don’t see any of the spines under the skin as the vinegar helps to dissolve them. They will go away in about a week with this process. Leaving them in will possibly promote arthritis and paralyzation of half of your body . This happened to two of my dive partners who didn’t use the vinegar to dissolve the spines. Both were hospitalized. This remedy has worked well for me many times in Hawaii where Ive lived and dove for over 30 years.

    • Roy Bendell says:

      Using hydrogen peroxide might be fine for the initial cleaning but I recommend alcohol. Hydrogen peroxide can inhibit new cell growth. I personally don’t use it in tropical environments. I agree with seeking medical attention if the spines are deep or very plentiful.

  3. 11 spines in my foot in Loreto. Trust me you don’t want Dr.’s from Mexico administering Novocaine. They use a needle the size of a coat hangar to inject it.

  4. Put my hand on one in Guantanamo…they had me soak it on Orange Juice!

  5. YES! Picking spines out of my knee, NOT the way to end a dive. A vinegar compress helped ease the sting.

  6. oh no Christine Blakley Martin

  7. Still have one stuck in my big toe knuckle. Going on two years.

  8. Uhhhh just needled one outta my palm from a few days ago! lol

  9. About 4 weeks ago got during a night dive got about 30 spines in my leg. Hot water and vinager did the trick. Still feel the lumps. Felt like someone sliced my leg open with a knife.

  10. Stepped on one possibly two in Grand Cayman still have two stuck in foot I’ll probably die with them in. They dont’t hurt anymore but can be seen deep in the skin

  11. I don’t think it injured me so much as I injured them

  12. yep, little extra calcium never hurt me

  13. I ran into one in my left chest on a dive on the YO257 off of Oahu, didn’t have any treatment, did take a time to get rid of the black spots on my chest, the spines were like glass, just broke off if tried to remove. Just let it assimilate into my system, no adverse affects

  14. Melt candle wax in the affected area and pull the wax out. I don’t suggest tweezers at all.

  15. Just remove what you can. Then, get a piece of wood, and start hitting yourself in the area affected. Spines will break in your skin, and disappear after a while. It worked for me a long time ago. =)

  16. Fear friends in turkey they are not poisinous. So if it had broken inside and no part seen outside , we put alittle olive oil and the skin gently spits it out by itself in few days.

  17. Yes….but it wasn’t bad at all, just 3 spines….

  18. yeah the north side of santa cruise was packed with them and star fish, way to many…

  19. yes i’ve got a spine in my right hand since 6 years….

  20. @Rey Cuba , will add wooden bat to my save a dive kit. Lol.

  21. Yes, I’ve gotten a spine through my glove, so I broke up the urchin and fed it to a parrot fish, lol

  22. This happened to me back in 2003′. My situation was far worst . I had over 9 my entire arm was purple. I had no idea what to do nor did the dive crew and captain.
    Learning experience!!!

  23. this reminds me on this video ::) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ude4ecCLPek

  24. Yes and it took weeks before the spines got out of my hands. Not a happy experience !

  25. yes, but thanks god it wasn’t like the one in the picture.

  26. Large part of my lower arm, pulled out what I could and then put it in hot / warm water for an hour and rubbed lemon over it, Sorted. Just had a few black marks for a couple of days. The spines are made of Calcium Carbonate so dissolve in acid and hot water.

  27. Dove into shallow water and hand came down right on top of urchin. My hand looked like the one in pic. Spines all broke at surface leaving 20 or so buried under skin. Surprising, there was little initial pain and no lingering pain. All pieces eventually dissolved or worked themselves out like a splinter does. Overall it was no big deal.

  28. I was pushed into one while snorkeling off the coast of St John, USVI in ’08. I had 2 dozen spines in my ankle. I soaked it in a 50/50 mix of water and acidic acid. I had trouble swimming back to shore. I was able to start my open water certification class in 24 hours.

  29. Lance Osborne says:

    A diabetics hypodermic needle is best to perpindicularly pry them out from under the skin. After the spine festers up a bit you will need to enlarge the original hole to allow the spine a path to come up. Use tweezers when you can get it out far enough to get a hold of. Be wary of spines lodged in joints and tendons as they never will come out and you must have surgery. Also, they can migrate through through soft tissue and come out years later . Having been a 25 year Sea Urchin harvester in California,I have excised many in my hands feet and knees and also have had to go under the knife for one lodged in a knuckle. I have even sliced into the soft tissue of myself to get at some spines. Its not really that big of a deal just use good basic sterile techniques with common rubbing alcohol and tend to any resultant wounds appropriately.

  30. There’s an Urchin sting first aid kit out and available made by Ocean Care Solutions..has everything you need in it..tweezers..saline solution..bandages..ointments..the works…check it out…good to have on hand…

  31. used urine if you got nothing as a first aid……. vinegar is the best if you happen to have it

  32. Raven Dark Lord says:

    Sometimes you can use “sea urchin soap” it is made to heal that kind of injury.

  33. I sat on one a few weeks ago in mexico and I couldn’t do any of this. Maybe that’s why I still have the marks:P

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