It’s a common experience – you’re at the beach for a weekend with family or friends, splashing around and enjoying your swim in the sea – then you feel something soft brush against your leg – and suddenly, the coolness turns to hot, shooting pain. You’ve been stung by a jellyfish. Jellyfish stings are a relatively common problem for people swimming, wading or diving in the sea. The long tentacles trailing from the jellyfish body can inject venom from thousands of microscopic barbed stingers.
Jellyfish stings vary greatly in severity. Most often they result in immediate pain and red, irritated marks on the skin. Some jellyfish stings may cause a whole-body (systemic) illness. And in rare cases jellyfish stings are life-threatening. Most jellyfish stings get better with home treatment. Severe reactions require emergency medical care.
Common signs and symptoms of jellyfish stings:
• Burning, prickling, stinging pain.
• Red, brown or purplish tracks on the skin — a “print” of the tentacles’ contact with your skin.
• Throbbing pain that radiates up a leg or an arm.
Severe jellyfish stings can affect multiple body systems. These reactions may appear rapidly or several hours after the stings.
Seek emergency treatment if you have severe symptoms.
Jellyfish tentacles contain microscopic barbed stingers. Each stinger has a tiny bulb that holds venom and a coiled, sharp-tipped tube. The jellyfish uses the venom to protect itself and kill prey. When you brush against a tentacle, tiny triggers on its surface release the stingers. The tube penetrates the skin and releases venom. It affects the immediate area of contact and may enter the bloodstream. Jellyfish that have washed up on a beach may still release venomous stingers if touched.
Conditions that increase your risk of getting stung by jellyfish include:
• Swimming at times when jellyfish appear in large numbers (a jellyfish bloom).
• Swimming or diving in jellyfish areas without protective clothing.
• Playing or sunbathing where jellyfish are washed up on the beach.
• Swimming in a place known to have many jellyfish.
Possible complications of a jellyfish sting include:
• Delayed hypersensitivity reaction, causing blisters, rash or other skin irritations one to two weeks after the sting.
• Irukandji syndrome, which causes chest and stomach pain, high blood pressure and heart problems.
Avoiding jellyfish stings
Wear a protective suit: When swimming or diving in areas where jellyfish stings are possible, wear a wet suit or other protective clothing. Diving stores sell protective “skin suits” or “stinger suits” made of thin, high-tech fabric. Consider protective footwear as stings can also occur while wading in shallow water.
Get information about conditions. Talk to lifeguards, local residents or officials with a local health department before swimming or diving in coastal waters, especially in areas where jellyfish are common.
Avoid water during jellyfish season: Stay out of the water when jellyfish numbers are high.
Diagnosis and treatment
You generally won’t need to see your doctor for a jellyfish sting. If you do visit your doctor, he or she will be able to diagnose your injury by looking at it. Sometimes treatment is based on the type of jellyfish that caused the sting. Your doctor may collect samples of the stingers.
Treatment for jellyfish includes first-aid care and medical treatment, depending on the type of jellyfish, the severity of the sting and your reaction to it.
Most jellyfish stings can be treated by carefully plucking visible tentacles with a fine tweezers, and soaking the skin in hot water. Use water that’s 110 degrees to 113 degrees Fahrenheit. If a thermometer isn’t available, test the water on an uninjured person’s hand or elbow — it should feel hot, not scalding. Keep the affected skin immersed or in a hot shower for 20 to 45 minutes.
Steps to avoid
These actions are unhelpful or unproved, do not scrape out stingers; do not rinse with seawater or human urine or fresh water; do not apply meat tenderizer, alcohol, ethanol or ammonia; do not rub with a towel; do not apply pressure bandages.
If first aid treatment is not enough, see your doctor right away.
Emergency care: Someone having a severe reaction to a jellyfish sting may need cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), life support or, if the sting is from a box jellyfish, antivenin medication.
Oral medicine: A rash or other skin reaction due to delayed hypersensitivity may be treated with oral antihistamines or corticosteroids. You may also be given oral pain medicine.
• For more information or to see a podiatrist, visit Bahamas Foot Centre Rosetta Street, telephone 325-2996; or Bahamas Surgical Associates Centre, Albury Lane, telephone 394-5820; or email firstname.lastname@example.org; or visit www.apma.org.