Eager for vacations and outdoor fun with family and friends this summer?
Suppose you get to your favorite oceanside getaway and quickly head for a dip in the surf. You splash, swim and dive into the waves, then something soft brushes against your leg. A shooting pain grabs your attention.
Could a jellyfish be the culprit? Do you know what to do if it is?
According to Dr. Mark Conroy, an emergency medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, serious reactions to jellyfish stings are rare. Even so, knowing what to do before a sting happens is important.
He suggests reading up on types of jellyfish common to the Atlantic Ocean versus the Pacific. And if you are traveling to Australia or other destinations, there are different jellyfish you could encounter, he says. In fact, there are more than 200 documented species of jellyfish out there.
“The best advice is to be aware, and avoid being stung. Talk with a local lifeguard before going into the water, and ask for an update on the latest swimming conditions. Although postings can be inconsistent, some beaches offer a warning when there is a high jellyfish presence.”
What to know about jellyfish
If you see a collection of jellyfish, keep everyone away. “If you see jellyfish on the beach, realize they can hurt you if you touch them,” Conroy said, noting that even dead jellyfish have venom in their tentacles that can sting on contact.
“I have three young children and it be hard to remind them to stay away from things, but adults can be similarly resistant to what can happen.”
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 more whole-body, or systemic, reactions, such as nausea and vomiting, muscle cramps, chest pain, numbness, blistering or difficulty breathing or swallowing. In very rare cases, jellyfish stings cause severe symptoms requiring immediate medical intervention.
Of the estimated 150 million people who are stung by jellyfish globally each year, most symptoms fall to the mild end of the spectrum and respond well to home treatments.
What to do immediately after a sting
The most important thing is to remove the person from the situation. If the beach area is crowded, move to a quieter spot.
“You need to remove the nematocysts (toxic barbs) from the person,” Conroy said. “These contain the toxins. The reaction from the sting will likely depend on how much toxin a person is exposed to and how susceptible an individual is to the effect of that toxin.”
There are misconceptions about what to use. Some say to pour vinegar or bottled water on the sting site, while others point to a popular Friends episode where a jellyfish stung Monica, and Joey and Chandler agreed urine would stop the pain.
According to Conroy, there are better options. Vinegar is viable is some circumstances, based on the type of jellyfish. Bottled water, though, may cause the nematocysts to release more toxins into the body. And urine is not sterile or effective for wound treatment.
Instead, Conroy recommends grabbing a bucket or empty water bottle to fill with sea water. Pour the salt water over the affected area and use a towel to gently rub the spot.
“You also can use salt water mixed with sand to create a paste,” he said. “Apply it and use a credit card or something with a fine edge to slide down the skin and gently remove the nematocysts.” Tweezers will do in a pinch as well.
How to treat lingering pain
The biggest complaint people have is not necessarily the pain of the jellyfish sting, but the sore area around the site. While some are treated with narcotics or other medicines to deal with the initial pain of a serious sting, others can use ibuprofen or acetaminophen.
“The next day I would recommend keeping out of direct sunlight if you have a local rash or blistering of the area,” Conroy said. “Sunlight tends to make it worse. But if the swelling and pain are gone, you can go ahead and continue your vacation.”