Cavorting around in the ocean is a right of passage especially during the summers, but getting stung by a jellyfish can put an abrupt stop to your fun. Here’s how to handle the situation if you or someone in your family gets zapped by one of these beautiful, mysterious sea creatures.
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What You Need To Know About Jellyfish
Jellyfish are whimsical sea creatures that have been around for millions of years and thrive in oceans across the world. You will find many different types of jellyfish; some look like small clear gelatinous blobs, while there are others that are much bigger, more colorful, and come with tentacles hanging beneath them, which they use to attack and sting their prey.
The tentacles are covered with sacs called nematocysts. When a jellyfish stings, these nematocysts let loose thousands of tiny barbs that hook into the skin and release venom which paralyzes their targets.
Jellyfish are non-aggressive creatures and don’t go after humans, and their stings are usually accidental. Anyone who swims up against, or wades into one — or even steps on a dead one — can be stung. While jellyfish stings can be horribly painful, they are very rarely emergencies, unless you get stung by certain types such as the box jellyfish (also called sea wasp), the Irukandji jellyfish and the Bluebottle jellyfish. These are very dangerous, and their stings can even be life-threatening. These jellyfish are mostly often found in the Indo-Pacific and the Australian waters.
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What Are Jellyfish Sting Symptoms?
The most common signs and symptoms of jellyfish stings include:
- Burning, stinging or prickling pain
- Red, brown or purplish track patterns on the skin – this is a “print” of the tentacles that have come in contact with your skin
- Tingling or a numbness sensation
- Throbbing pain that seems to radiate up an arm or a leg
Serious jellyfish stings can also affect multiple body systems at a time. Your body may either respond immediately or several hours after the stings. Symptoms of severe jellyfish stings include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Muscle and joint problems
- Weakness and dizziness
- Difficulty in breathing
- Heart rate abnormalities and chest pain
The severity of your reaction depends on a few factors such as:
- The type and size of the jellyfish
- Your age, size, and health, with severe reactions more likely to be found in children and people facing poor health conditions
- How long you were exposed to the jellyfish’s stingers
- How much of your skin is affected
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How To Treat Jellyfish Stings
Follow these steps if you or someone in your family gets stung by a jellyfish.
For Deadly Jellyfish Stings
- Get The Patient Out Of Water – Remember to do this before anything else, as sometimes, the pain of the sting may cause the person stung to lose consciousness and he may drown.
- Call For Medical Help Immediately – If you are stung by a box jellyfish, the bluebottle jellyfish (also known as the Portuguese man o’ war), or the Irukandji jellyfish, seek medical help immediately.
- Avoid Contact With Sand – This will only irritate the skin more.
- Bathe With Vinegar – While you are waiting for medical help, flood the area that was stung with vinegar and make sure the patient stays as still as possible. If you don’t find yourself close to any medical care, soak the area and tentacles (if they are stuck to your skin) for 10 minutes or more, before attempting to remove them.
- Pressure Dressing – If the person has been stung on the arms or legs, place a pressure dressing around the area of the sting. Be careful to not stop the blood flow – the fingers and toes should always stay pink and not turn blue. Continuous blood circulation will help to slow down the spread of the jellyfish venom.
For Milder Jellyfish Stings
- Soak In Vinegar – For other milder jellyfish stings, help the patient out of the water and soak or rinse the stung area with vinegar (acetic acid) for about 15-30 minutes. This will prevent the nematocysts from further releasing their toxins. If you do not have vinegar available, rinse the area with sea water or with 70% isopropyl alcohol (an antiseptic). Do not rub the stung area, or apply ice, hot water or fresh water, as this change of environment will only cause the activate the nematocysts and make them release more toxins.
- Avoid Contact With Sand – Sand can cause irritation on the skin and result in the patient wanting to scratch himself even more.
- Remove The Tentacles – Use a stick or a pair of tweezers to remove the tentacles clinging the skin. Wear gloves if they are available. Never touch tentacles with your bare hands as they may sting you.
- Apply Shaving Cream Or Baking Soda – Applying a paste of baking soda or shaving cream/foam will help in preventing the spreading of jellyfish venom. Shave the area gently and carefully with a razor or a credit card to remove any adhering nematocysts.
- Reapply Vinegar And Administer Pain Killers – A second rinse with vinegar or alcohol will further help soothe the affected area. Also, ice/heat packs, pain relievers and topical anesthetics and steroids can be applied to ease the pain, now that all the stingers and tentacles of the jellyfish have been removed.
Treating Eye And Mouth Stings
- Eye Stings – Rinse the eye and the area around it with a saline solution. You can also dab the skin around the eyes with a soft towel that has been soaked in vinegar. Remember to not place vinegar directly in contact with the eye as this can cause a painful burning sensation.
- Mouth Stings – Mix ¼ cup of vinegar with a ¾ cup of water. Gargle for a few seconds and spit out the solution. Do not drink or swallow this vinegar solution.
Note: Remember to discard all the items that have come into contact with the jellyfish or its tentacles for they may still contain toxins. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) may also be necessary for all stings if you find that the victim has stopped breathing and/or no longer has a pulse.
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When Should I Call A Doctor For A Jellyfish Sting?
Seek immediate medical treatment if the person stung faces one or more of the following symptoms:
- Difficulty in breathing and swallowing, chest pain, or an intense pain around the area of the skin that has been stung
- If the person has been stung in the mouth and his voice changes, if there is swelling of the tongue or the lips, or if he is facing a difficulty in swallowing
- If the person stung is either very young or very old.
- If the sting involves the face or the genitals, or a large area of the body
- If the patient continues to suffer from itching, swelling of the skin (cellulitis) around the sting, redness, even after basic steps for treatment have been taken
The doctor may prescribe:
- Diphenhydramine (Benadryl) to help soothe the itching
- Medication for the pain, and/or topical steroids or steroids by mouth to help cure the swelling and itching.
- Antibiotics if the patient is suffering from cellulitis. All medications must be taken as directed and repeated diligently until the person has been cured.
- A tetanus booster shot might be recommended in case it has been longer than 10 years since the patient’s last tetanus shot.
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Remedies To Avoid
You may have read about certain remedies to jellyfish stings online but we advise against these as some of these are old wives’ tales and there is no proof that they are really helpful. Such remedies include:
- Human urine
- Solvents like formalin, ethanol, and gasoline
- Meat tenderizer
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How Can I Prevent Jellyfish Stings?
- Avoid going into areas that are known to be infested with jellyfish.
- If at all you must venture into jellyfish-infested areas, wear protective gloves, wetsuits, and dive skins.
- Take the time to educate yourself as to the type of jellyfish that are common to the area in which you are swimming, snorkeling, or scuba diving.
- Take a course in basic first aid before heading to the beach, be it for swimming, snorkeling or scuba diving.
- Learn how to treat a jellyfish sting yourself. Have a basic first aid kit prepared beforehand which includes a few oral antihistamines and remember to bring it with you every time you go to the beach.
- If you are aware of having insect sting allergies, carry an allergy kit which contains injectable epi-pens (epinephrine and adrenaline). If you haven’t used an epi-pen before, make sure you consult your doctor to learn the process. Also, ensure that the people you are traveling with know how to administer the epi-pen in case you are unable to do so.
- While swimming, snorkeling or scuba diving in the evening or at night, keep an eye out for jellyfish on the surface of the water so as to avoid accidentally coming in contact with one.
- Expel large quantities of air from the alternate air source while ascending into the waters during scuba diving to disperse any jellyfish that may be swimming directly above you.
- Never pick up dead jellyfish, especially with bare hands. Even when dead and dried up, they may still have live nematocysts that can release toxins.
Be responsible when going for swimming, scuba diving, or snorkeling and remember, it is your duty to protect living creatures and be respectful of their space. Do not touch or move around any marine life. Most marine creatures have a protective outer coating which gets rubbed off when touched, thus exposing the animal to harmful bacteria and parasites. Furthermore, touching, “playing” or moving marine animals around is extremely stressful for them. Corals, for example, are easily damaged when touched and the areas of the coral that have been touched by any part of the body will eventually die.
Always look, don’t touch, and leave only bubbles!