Jellyfish are a common sea creature found in every ocean. There are many species of jellyfish, all of them with tentacles. Some carry poisonous venom in their tentacles as a method of self-defence against predators. It’s this venom that makes a jellyfish sting so painful.
Most types of jellyfish stings will cause some discomfort, but some can be life-threatening. According to the National Science Foundation, over 500,000 people are stung by jellyfish every year in North America’s Chesapeake Bay alone.
Common symptoms of a jellyfish sting include:
- A burning, stinging sensation on your skin
- A tingling or numbness where the sting occurred
- The skin in the area where the jellyfish stung turning red or purple
More severe symptoms of a jellyfish sting include:
- Difficulty breathing
The severity of your symptoms will depend on what kind of jellyfish you encountered, and how much of your skin is affected by its venom.
Treating jellyfish stings
Treatment for jellyfish stings mainly revolves around pain relief or healing allergic reactions if they occur.
Immediate relief treatment
Most jellyfish stings can be treated right away with a saltwater or hot water rinse. This will help decrease the burning sensation from the sting. It may also help to take a hot shower as soon as possible. A recent study concluded that jellyfish stings are treated more effectively by hot water than by ice packs.
If you’re in a lot of pain, you can try applying a topical painkiller such as lidocaine (LMX 4, AneCream). A pain reliever such as ibuprofen (Advil) could also lessen the effect of the sting.
You may find out you are allergic to jellyfish stings after you’ve been stung by one. If you’re having an allergic reaction, such as hives, an over-the-counter antihistamine cream will help bring relief.
Some people believe that applying a baking soda paste to the sting area will soothe their skin and draw out the jellyfish’s venom. Vinegar is also a popular remedy for jellyfish stings. But the effectiveness of both of these remedies is inconclusive. Using a vinegar rinse may help in the case of some jellyfish species, but not others.
Medicines for severe reactions
A reaction to a more dangerous species of jellyfish will need to be treated with antivenin. This is a special drug formulated to combat the venom of a specific breed of animal. Antivenin for jellyfish stings can only be found in hospitals.
What not to do when you’ve been stung by a jellyfish
It’s a popular belief that human urine can be used to treat a jellyfish sting. This has never been proven. Human urine isn’t a sanitary medical treatment, and there is no need to resort to trying it. Treating the area of your sting with saltwater from the ocean or a hot water rinse is a much better and more effective method of treatment.
Meat tenderizer, a popular remedy, also shouldn’t be used, as it can cause damage to tissue.
Don’t rub the area where your skin has been stung for several hours afterwards, and avoid getting sand near the wound.
Rinsing with cold, fresh water might seem like a good idea, but it could activate more jellyfish stingers if there are still some in your skin. Opting for a hot shower instead will help rinse the stingers out without making the sting worse.
Avoiding jellyfish stings
Certain bodies of water are known to contain large numbers of jellyfish, called blooms. Swimming in bodies of water where blooms of jellyfish are known to be increases your chance of getting stung.
Swimming downwind also makes getting stung more likely, as jellyfish travel with the current. People who fish, dive, or go boating in deep waters are all more likely to get jellyfish stings. Same goes for people who scuba dive without protective equipment and people who surf.
How to prevent a jellyfish sting
Any time you swim in an ocean, you’re visiting the natural habitat of the jellyfish. There is always a chance you may encounter a jellyfish, but you can take steps to make getting stung less likely.
When you arrive at a beach, speak with the lifeguard on duty about what types of jellyfish have been seen in the area and if people have been reporting stings that day. Jellyfish move in patterns, riding currents, and are more common during certain times of the year. You may wish to avoid swimming in areas with high jellyfish populations altogether.
Wearing a protective bodysuit in the water will reduce your chances of being stung.
When wading in shallow water, shuffle your feet and walk slowly to disturb the sand and avoid catching a jellyfish by surprise.
Although they’re beautiful and interesting to look at, you should never pick up a jellyfish that has washed up on the beach. Even dead jellyfish can deploy venom from their tentacles.
Commercial products are available that claim to reduce the odds of jellyfish stings, although their clinical benefit is largely unknown.
When to see a doctor
Most jellyfish stings won’t have any long-term effect on your health. If you’re stung by a jellyfish and start to feel dizzy or nauseous, pay close attention. Jellyfish sting symptoms, especially from more dangerous species, can escalate quickly. If you lose feeling in the limb that was stung, have difficulty breathing, or experience heart palpitations after being stung, go to the emergency room. Being stung by a jellyfish in an area known to have dangerous breeds such as lion’s mane and box jellyfish, is also cause for concern. As well, if you’re stung by a jellyfish multiple times, you should see a doctor.