Scorpion stings are painful but rarely life-threatening. Healthy adults usually don't need treatment for scorpion stings. Young children and older adults are most at risk of serious complications.
Scorpions are arthropods — a relative of insects, spiders and crustaceans. Bark scorpions — the only scorpion species in the U.S. with venom strong enough to cause serious symptoms — are generally about 1.6 to 3 inches (4 to 8 cm) long, including a segmented tail with a stinger that can deliver venom. They're found mainly in the desert Southwest. Worldwide, of more than 2,000 species of scorpions, about 100 produce venom serious enough to be fatal.
Scorpions have eight legs and a pair of lobster-like pinchers and a tail that curves up. They're generally more active at night. They usually won't sting unless provoked or attacked. Most stings occur when they're accidentally grabbed or stepped on or brushed against the body.
Symptoms at the site of a scorpion sting may include:
- Pain, which can be intense.
- Numbness and tingling.
- Slight swelling.
Symptoms from venom that affect the whole body — usually in children who are stung — include:
- A hard time breathing.
- Muscle twitching or thrashing.
- Unusual head, neck and eye movements.
- Slurred speech.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- High blood pressure (hypertension).
- Fast heart rate (tachycardia).
- Being restless or excitable, or crying in children that can't be comforted.
As with other stinging insects, such as bees and wasps, it is possible for people who have been stung by scorpions before to have allergic reactions when stung later. Reactions to these later stings are sometimes serious enough to cause a life-threatening condition called anaphylaxis. Symptoms in these cases are like those of anaphylaxis caused by bee stings, including hives, trouble breathing, and nausea and vomiting.
When to see a doctor
Contact your local poison control center at once if a child is stung by a scorpion. To reach a poison control center in the U.S., call Poison Help at 800-222-1222. Also, seek medical care if you've been stung and begin to have a hard time breathing or other symptoms that continue for more than a week. If you're concerned about a scorpion sting, you also can call your local poison control center for advice.
A scorpion sting is caused by the stinger in a scorpion's tail. When a scorpion stings, its stinger can release venom. The venom contains a complex mix of toxins that affect the nervous system. These are called neurotoxins.
Your risk of a scorpion sting rises if you:
- Live or travel where scorpions are. In the U.S., scorpions mainly live in the desert Southwest, primarily Arizona, New Mexico and parts of California. Worldwide, they're found most often in Mexico, North Africa, South America, the Middle East and India. And you might bring them home with you. That's because scorpions can hide in clothing, luggage and shipping containers.
- Work, hike or camp where scorpions are. Bark scorpions live under rocks and logs. They also live under tree bark, which is how they get their name. You're more likely to come into contact with one when you're working outside, hiking or camping.
The very old and the very young are most likely to die of untreated venomous scorpion stings. The cause is usually heart or lung failure that occurs some hours after the sting. Very few deaths from scorpion stings have been reported in the U.S.
Rarely, scorpion stings can cause a serious allergic reaction called anaphylaxis.
Scorpions tend to avoid contact. If you live in an area where scorpions are common, consider these steps to prevent chance meetings:
- Remove piles of rocks or lumber from around your house, and don't store firewood against the house or inside.
- Keep grass closely mowed, and prune bushes and overhanging tree branches that can provide scorpions with a path to your roof.
- Caulk cracks, install weatherstripping around doors and windows, and repair torn screens.
- Inspect and shake out gardening gloves, clothing and boots that haven't been used for a while.
- Take steps when you're traveling. When you're in areas where deadly scorpions are common — especially if you're camping or staying in rustic accommodations — wear shoes. Also, shake out your clothing, bedding, gear and packages often.
Scorpions glow under a black light, so you might want to use one at night to look at what's around you. If you find a scorpion, use tongs to gently move it away from people.
Your doctor usually needs only your history and symptoms to make a diagnosis. If you have serious symptoms, you may have blood or imaging tests to check for the effects of the venom on your liver, heart, lungs and other organs.
Most scorpion stings don't need medical treatment. But if symptoms are serious, you may need to receive care in a hospital. You may be given drugs through a vein to treat pain.
Scorpion anti-venom may be given to children to keep symptoms from happening. Adults with serious symptoms also may be given anti-venom.
Lifestyle and home remedies
If a scorpion stings your child, first contact your local poison control center. To reach this center, call Poison Help at 800-222-1222.
Based on Poison Help's advice, consider the following:
- Clean the wound with mild soap and water.
- Apply a cool compress to the affected area. This may ease the pain.
- If stung on an arm or leg, rest the affected limb in a supportive position.
- If having a hard time swallowing, limit intake to sips of water. If this symptom does not resolve or gets worse over the next hour, seek medical attention.
- Don't take or give any medicines to make you sleep or to feel calm or less anxious.
- Take a pain reliever available without a prescription as needed. You might try ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, Children's Motrin, others) to ease pain.
If you're healthy and you're not having any serious symptoms, you may not need to be treated by a doctor. Rather, you also can follow the steps above.
Check vaccination records to be sure tetanus vaccinations are up to date for you and your child.
These tips can help keep children safe until they see a doctor.
Last Updated Oct 3, 2023