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Scrapes, scratches and abrasions are nothing new to the passionate aquarium hobbyist; what with all the lifting of rough decor, sharp-edged tanks and other paraphernalia. It's amazing we don't lose a limb with all the thrashing about.
Beyond consideration of damage from physical trauma are two other concerns for aquarists; stings and envenomation from livestock and secondary infection. Handling aquatics can indeed be hazardous to your health. However, with proper precaution and timely treatment of wounds, aquarium keeping can still be vastly less dangerous than driving on the freeway.
The only thing more amazing to me than how many aquarium specimens are dangerous is how many folks are oblivious to knowing which one's bite, poke and sting.
The Venomous Crowd:
Includes many catfishes, including aquarium favorites in the families Callichthyidae, Pimelodidae, Heteropneustidae, Ictaluridae (American catfishes), and marine catfishes (watch out for these), the Plotosidae; the obvious Scorpionfishes, Lionfishes, and their relatives (family Scorpaenidae), Stonefishes (Family Synanceiidae), Rabbitfishes (family Siganidae, like the Foxface, Lo vulpinis, various stingray families (Dasyatidae, Gymnuridae, Myliobatidae, Urolophidae, and of course the freshwater stingrays Potamotrygonidae) which are more feared than the toothy piranhas. Other lesser known, but quite venomous fishes include the toadfishes (Batrachoididae), ratfishes (Chimaeridae), horned sharks (Heterodontidae), weeverfishes (Trachinidae), stargazers (Uranoscopidae) and Surgeonfishes (Acanthuridae), even scats (Scatophagidae), whew. These (and a few others) are not just painful to get spined by with their stout sharp fin supports; they are venomous, delivering toxins into unwitting body parts they encounter.
Oh wait a minute; did we forget to mention the non-fishes kept by aquarists that are venomous; sea urchins, some sea-stars, cone snails, a few octopus among others?
Let's assume you're fast, knowledgeable or just plain lucky, and manage to avoid outright envenomation; you're not of total range of trouble because there is always the chance of:
Viral, bacterial and fungal illness is possible from any break in the skin exposed to water. Many infections have been tracked back to exposure of a hobbyist's cut hand in an "ordinary fish tank". See Chuck Davis' citation of the July 1993 Practical Fishkeeping piece concerning the transmission of Mycobacterium marinum from fish to aquarists. There are more than thirty species of marine bacteria pathogenic to humans; including such notables as Aeromonas hydrophila (commonly found in freshwater, a cause of serious wound infections), Clostridium perfringens (source of gas gangrene), Clostridium tetani (tetanus), Erysipelothrix rhusopathiae ("Fish handler's disease, "blubber finger"), Pseudomonas aeruginosa (cause of hot tub dermatitis). Other bacteria genera that will be familiar to the advanced aquarist into pathology are Mycobacterium (marinum) (see recent piece by Verneris), and numerous Vibrio species. Some non-fun now.
Do you consider your tanks "little slices of aquatic environments?" More likely they're "little sewers" with very concentrated microbial populations; just ripe for a new culture media; you. Chances are, unless you are susceptible to infection, have an impaired immune system or get a good dose, you will not develop such an infection that requires physician care. You are now more aware however to what dangers lurk in our aquatic cages. Let's discuss how to avoid becoming a statistic.
Of course, an ounce of... is better than a poke in the thumb. What would you describe to the uninitiated to make them aware of what not to do? The beginning of understanding is knowledge. By reading, talking with people of similar interests, and observation we gain first and second-hand experience. Your learning and skill came about by watching, doing, reflecting; one of the reasons you're reading this.
For home and professional aquarists the first rule of preventative safety is simply be aware of what can hurt you; the second is be careful, the third is react appropriately.
If at all possible we really should keep our hands out of our tanks. Why is obvious, but not near as much fun as monkeying around inside them. Besides cutting ourselves, the chance of introducing possible pollution is too great. For these reasons, most activity calling for submergence can be accomplished with tongs, a probe or siphon device engineered for aquarium use. Real manual dexterity without contaminants and protection from infection is attained with long rubber gloves. Voila! Use a net as a partition when dealing with stingerees like Lionfishes and their relatives, and biters such as Triggerfishes.
Moving Livestock: Moving Livestock: presents the premiere opportunity for getting punctured, poked and cut. Move your livestock like the pros, utilizing two nets; one to steer and direct with, the other for swooping underneath the intended catch. For larger, venomous and structurally delicate specimens applying a container such as doubled fish bags or plastic ware along with two nets allows you to capture your pets without lifting them into the air; this is much better for everyone. presents the premiere opportunity for getting punctured, poked and cut. Move your livestock like the pros, utilizing two nets; one to steer and direct with, the other for swooping underneath the intended catch. For larger, venomous and structurally delicate specimens applying a container such as doubled fish bags or plastic ware along with two nets allows you to capture your pets without lifting them into the air; this is much better for everyone.
Ouch! What Now?:
But, alas we be but mere mortals; given to laziness and the vagaries of serendipity. We will put our bare arms and hands in danger; and inevitably suffer the occasional scrape and puncture. Then what?
So you've suffered an owee; is it something you should be concerned about; I mean should you do something? Yes. All wounds are potentially serious, and require critical evaluation. If stung or poked by contact with a critter, were you possibly envenomized? Maybe with a material you have a possible allergy to? Similar to social insect (wasps, bees, ants) sting sensitivities, aquatic-source toxins affect people differently. If you have a known allergen reaction to proteinaceous stings on land, check with your doctor concerning aquatic possibilities and treatment.
Let's talk smarts from stinging-celled animals, anemones, jellyfishes, corals, their relatives and other organisms that collect and use their specialized barbed-sting cells, nematocysts (cnidocysts). If you use gloves or keep your mitts out of the system as proscribed, or carefully touch these animals on calloused hands only, promptly cleaning up after handling, you might never know their peculiar, sticky, ensuing pain. What happens of course is our wrists get swiped, you touch yourself around the eye or other mucus membrane (ouch) and the local to generalized burning-pain ensues. This is no joke. Avoid contact with these invertebrates and whatever touches them. Those stinging cells attach to aquarium sides, decor and in-tank tools, and can still sting hours later. Allow this poignant memory/example: Many moons ago (in the early 70's) I worked for Sears-Roebucks when they were in the aquarium trade. We had a marine tank that kept suffering anomalous fish losses; even after, in desperation, dumping and re-filling with fresh artificial seawater. Cause? The tank had previously housed a "Spanish dancer" a beautifully bizarre swimming snail. These undulating gastropods are one of the aforementioned groups that eat stinging-celled animals and use their cells for defense. The nematocysts wiped onto the tank sides, substrate and ornament from the Spanish dancer were subsequently stinging and killing it's tankmates.
This was confirmed by microscopic examination of scrapings from the tank; which we subsequently dumped and scrubbed with ammonia.
Which brings us to the question of topical treatment of stings. Some folks suggest the above-mentioned ammonia be applied to the site, others soap and water, meat tenderizers (like A-1) that contain protein digestive enzymes, papaya for the same reason, plain white vinegar, among other novel therapies. Wet sand (handy, but no thanks) and freshwater should be avoided as these will trigger the firing of more nematocysts increasing the stinging.
But don't ignore the initial itching that indicates your following discomfort. You can lessen severity, even possible scarring by prompt attention. Be aware there are specific preparations for fighting the effects of these stings.
Depending on where and how much toxin is injected, you will know you've been envenomized within seconds to minutes. If any doubt exists as to whether you should seek medical help, do so. A standard procedure is to 1) Soak the wound quickly and thoroughly in hot water. The temperature should be just below too hot for comfort; this will help de-nature (take apart it's three dimensional structure) the protein of the poison. 2) Get the person to a physician; to have the wound cleansed, examined and to have the individual checked for collateral damage.
General Treatment for All Cuts, Stings and Venom Events:
The first order of business. Is there any foreign material in the wound? Can/should you remove it? Many types of wounds are best flushed with clean warm water initially. This flushes away debris, and makes the area easier to inspect. With invertebrates (e.g. sea urchins) the careful use of forceps might be called for. Take care to not cause even more damage. Many stings and barbs are brittle and crush easily. When and where there is much pain, swelling or residual material, get medical attention.
What did your mom advise? "Wash up good with hot soap and water". Good advice. This simple procedure effectively cleans most superficial wounds sufficiently.
The wound and surrounding area should be de-contaminated, freed from chance of outside organisms or poisons. For aquarium cuts and bio-punctures the above recommended use of hot water and soap will do; but you may want to employ more thorough cleansing with peroxide, an alcohol or iodine solution or other commercial preparation.
Two words keep the wound dry and clean, and a short sentence, "keep your eye on it". Does it hurt, is the wound emarginated? This is good to some degree; an indication your body recognizes that something is going on and is reacting to it.
Depending on the direct cause(s) of the wound ongoing therapy might include anti-inflammatories, some form of pain-killer, antibiotics and more.
Infection occurs when bacteria enters the body through an open wound or abrasion. Over a period of time a sore or swelling may develop. Given time, most of these will remedy themselves without treatment. Cleaning, disinfecting and keeping the wound dry and covered will speed up the healing process.
Should you have doubts, persistent pain or swelling for any length of time, I suggest you seek medical help. Love those blanket hold-blameless clauses.
Three New MASNA Education Pages
Auerbach, Paul S. in Alfred A. Bove's Diving Medicine column; Wound Management. Skin Diver. 4/87.
Blasiola, George C.. 1988. Handling Venomous Fishes; Proper Methods Reduce the Risk of Injury. Pet Age 6/88.
Bove, Alfred A. Diving Medicine. Skin Diver. 7/87.
Davis, Chuck. 1994. Health Watch, in Society News. Aquarium Fish Magazine. 8/94.
Dulin, Mark P.. 1977. yes, Some Fishes Can Be Hazardous to Your Health. Tropical Fish Hobbyist. 6/77.
Fox, Gregory A.. 1989, 90. Venomous and Potentially Dangerous Marine Animals. Pt. 1: The Scorpionfish Family. Pt. 2: The
Cnidarians. Pt. 3 Morays, Stingrays and Sharks. Pt. 4: Pests and Tips. Freshwater and Marine Aquarium. 12/89, 1, 2 & 4/90.
Hough, Dennis. 1988. Safer Mates or, How to Keep Fin and Hand Intact. Tropical Fish Hobbyist. 8/88.
Leddo, Leslie: Mycobacteriosis: An Infection You Could Acquire From Your Aquarium . It is also posted in the Library of syngnathid.org http://www.syngnathid.org/ubbthreads/showarticles.php
Mackey, Vienna. 1983. Tips on Handling Your Venomous Marine Fishes. Tropical Fish Hobbyist. 9/83.
Ladiges, Prof. Undated. Poisonous (sic) Fish in the Aquarium. Aquarium Digest International. # 26.
Speice, Paul. 1985. Handle With Care, in Guppies to Groupers. Freshwater and Marine Aquarium. 11/85.
Weingarten, Robert A.. 1991. Dangerous Marines, Guest Editorial. Freshwater and Marine Aquarium. 1/91.
Verneris, Michael. 1995. A Word of Warning, Mycobacterium marinum- a fishy infection that you can catch too. Aquarium Fish Magazine, 8/95.
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