When a Scorpion Sting Turns Deadly

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This survival-medicine website provides general information, not individual advice. Most scenarios assume the victim cannot get expert medical help. Please see the disclaimer.

When a Scorpion Sting Turns Deadly

The bark scorpion's is the most dangerous of all scorpion stings.

The bark scorpion likes to live in trees (bark) and hide in woodpiles, under fallen trees, or under your camping bedding.

by James Hubbard, MD, MPH

Scorpions make me think of Westerns. Some cowboy is riding a horse in the desert and they cut to a single scorpion in the sand. It symbolizes that this land is rough, rugged, and dangerous. One sting, and you’re dead.

Cut to real life. While you will find most scorpions in the desert, you may also come across them in many Southeastern and Midwestern states. In all but one species in the U.S., the scorpion sting is similar to a bee sting. Yes, you can be allergic, and the reaction can result in death. (See my bee stings post for signs and treatment of this anaphylactic reaction.)

Usually, though, the scorpion sting just hurts. But there is one scorpion here that causes more problems than others: the bark scorpion. Its sting can affect your brain and nerves. Some people are more vulnerable to a bad outcome than others, but there are things you can do if you see the reaction.

Bark Scorpions
  • Live in California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Southern Colorado.
  • Are yellow or gray.
  • Are relatively small, about 2–3 inches from head to stinger.
  • Like to live in trees (bark) and hide in woodpiles, under fallen trees, or under your camping bedding.
  • Can also be found inside the house in shoes, in clothes, and under blankets. They come out and hunt for insects, etc., at night.
Many scorpion species, including the bark scorpion, glow in the dark if a black light is shined on them.

Many scorpion species, including the bark scorpion, glow in the dark if a black light is shined on them.

Their sting can be fatal, but it’s not always. In fact, most bark scorpion stings are no worse than stings from other scorpions. But even in healthy adults, about 1 percent of victims can die without treatment. In children under 5, the risk of death is estimated to be as high as 25 percent. Adults with chronic diseases and those 65 and older are also at higher risk.

Antivenin treatment is available at medical centers in regions where the bark scorpion is most prevalent.

Serious symptoms start within minutes of the sting and may include:

  • Increased salivation (foaming at the mouth or drooling)
  • Blurred vision
  • Trouble focusing
  • Slurred speech
  • Muscle twitches
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Seizures
  • Trouble breathing

If you see any of these symptoms and can’t get the victim to the antivenin, an ice pack applied within two hours of the sting can decrease the poison’s spread. If the person’s having trouble breathing, make sure they have an open airway by rolling them on their side (or putting in an airway if you know how). Try rest and fluids—IV fluids if you have them. Usually the symptoms subside within 24 to 48 hours.

If the person doesn’t have a reaction you can just treat the sting like you would a normal bee sting.

What about you? Have you, or an acquaintance, ever been stung? How did it feel?

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Bark scorpion on rocks: Flickr/Beetles in the Bush. Bark scorpion under black light: Flickr/midwinter.

  • Jessica

    I was stung by a tree bark scorpion in Arizona. I pick up my clothes on the floor and never even knew I was stung. It took about 10 minutes to feel the sting. I had muscle twitching and severe pain for 3 days. It felt like someone hit me in the arm with a bat non stop pain with no relief. I think it got me pretty good. No pain relievers helped either. Before I knew I was stung I called poison control because my arm started to hurt more and more and I knew I had to have been bit or stung by something. I had a red circle on my arm. The area was light red and sticky or moist feeling from the toxins. It also made my throat feel a little funny which is why I called poison control. I called and they said I would be okay. I would have already been dead from a reaction by the time I had called. lol Luckily I didn’t know I was stung when I did or I would have killed myself thinking I was going to die. A year later I was playing with dander on the floor while I was talking in low light on the phone trying to keep track of it so I could throw it away in a minute. I stopped playing with it and then it moved by itself! It was a really tiny tree bark scorpion. I had literally grabbed it with my fingers and flicked it around. It stung me on the tips of my two fingers. I felt only tingling and a little twitching. Nothing like the first time luckily.

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Interesting. Thanks for sharing that, Jessica.

  • Bertram

    They are in Las Vegas. Probably imported in plants from Arizona. My wife was stung and experienced burning pain, no swelling, a little trouble with her breathing, and blurred vision for about 8 hours. Little guy, but he packed a punch.

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Thanks, Bertram. Yes, they are spreading.

  • John G.

    Many moons ago, a friend and co-worker was bitten by a bark scorpion. When we arrived (via ambulance), he appeared as a classic hemiparetic stroke patient. We found the barky, still under the covers.
    He was OK within 24 hrs.
    And they are tastier when roasted. ;-)

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Thanks for the tip.

  • Suni

    First of all Texas is also a border state and yes we do have these also. Next you said how does it feel to be stung by one of these scorpions. Well if you have ever been around a cigarette they burn at around 1600 F and if you were to hold the lit end of that cigarette to your skin and not move it is how these little critters feel when it stings you. That sensation will not stop for around 30 min’s to 1 hr. What we usually do is apply ice until you can bare to remove it and then apply a paste of baking soda and water. Also my grandparents would tell us to put the juice from chewing tobacco and water on top of the sting, which did seem to help. There is also a numbing sensation to the area after the initial sting has stopped hurting. It is common anywhere in the desert region of the southern U.S. to see all types of scorpions.

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Good info, Suni. I think bark scorpions must be spreading out. I saw some article about them being in Arkansas also.