My last blog was about INVISIBLE things that sting, but this one is all about much larger and visible stingers- JELLYFISH. We all know what they look like- bell-shaped, primitive looking soft tops, with variable amounts of tentacles streaming below. Swimmers typically stumble upon these creatures at or near the surface of the water, or washed up along the beach. Do NOT make the mistake of thinking an obviously dead jellyfish washed up on the shore is harmless! The stingers (nematocysts) in the tentacles will release their toxin and sting you- whether the jelly is dead or alive.
Most jellyfish stings around the United States are an uncomfortable nuisance, but not life-threatening. The box jellyfish of Australia, however, can be lethal, and so these are a true medical emergency.
What happens with a jellyfish sting, and what should you do?
Stings cause immediate pain, redness and swelling. Severe stings can cause more bodily reactions, including, nausea, vomiting, headache, muscle aches, and fever/sweats/chills. Immediately wash the stung area in SALT WATER- stick it in the ocean. If you rinse with fresh water, remaining nematocysts will discharge, which means you will immediately have many more stings! If you have quick access to vinegar, pour that over the sting (because vinegar helps neutralize the toxin and prevents further release of more toxin.) Stings typically involve extremities, but if your eyes or mouth are involved with the sting, seek immediate medical attention. For the eyes, flush with a gallon of fresh water before heading for help.
If the tentacles are stuck on you, pour vinegar over them, then make a paste with mud (or if available, with baking soda or shaving cream) before you try to remove the tentacles with tweezers or a knife/razor. Flush the area again with vinegar after removal.
Topical steroid cream or ointment may help reduce discomfort and swelling after the initial first aid.
BOTTOM LINE: If you are going to swim in an area known to have jellyfish, make sure everyone knows not to touch “dead” jellies, and add a bottle of vinegar and a box of baking soda to your family beach bag.