Symptoms and Signs of Shark Attack

Medical Author:
Medically Reviewed on 11/19/2021

Doctor's Notes on Shark Attack

Shark attacks are very infrequent. They consist of either one or more bites anywhere on the body. Signs and symptoms vary from a pattern of small parallel cuts to crescent-shaped wounds with massive tissue or limb damage or loss with some having sharks' teeth left in the wound. Some sharks will bump or scrape the individual before biting. Most wounds from a shark attack should be evaluated by a medical caregiver.

The exact cause of a shark attack is likely the shark's interpretation of the victim as a food source. Only about 40 of the approximately 400 shark species have documented attacks on people with the great white shark as having the most. Experts suggest any shark bigger than 2 meters (about 6 ft) is potentially dangerous. Sharks can sense blood. Avoid the water if bleeding. Do not swim alone or wear shiny objects or brightly contrasting colors or swimming at dawn or dusk or at night when sharks are usually feeding.

What Is the Treatment for Shark Bites?

In most individuals with a shark bite (even some minor bites), have someone call 911 as soon as possible. Then take the following steps:

  • Safely remove the patient from the water.
    • For minor bites (skin abrasions, small cuts/punctures, for example):
      • Clean wound with soap and water.
    • For major shark bites:
      • Control/reduce bleeding with direct pressure to the bleeding area.
      • Keep the person warm.
      • Treat shock (cool and clammy skin, weak and rapid pulse, nausea and/or is faint or unconscious).
        • Elevate the feet about 12 inches.
        • Turn on side if vomiting or bleeding from the mouth.
        • If necessary, begin CPR if breathing is weak or absent.
        • Treat obvious injuries.
        • Keep the person warm, comfortable, and still.
        • Loosen tight clothing and other potentially restrictive items like rings and watches.
        • Try to reassure the patient.
        • Do not give any food or drink.

Transport the patient by ambulance, if available, to a hospital for further evaluation.


Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.