How to Survive a Jellyfish Sting

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Every summer and early autumn always seems to bring a fresh influx of dramatic headlines about jellyfish invasions on our shores. This year, however, the unusually active hurricane season has led to record numbers of highly dangerous Portuguese man o’war washing up along the Cornish and Welsh coasts. Most of us would automatically steer clear of jellyfish because we are taught from a young age that they sting, but this little information is often pretty much all we know about these strange creatures. Although we would bet if you have ever found one washed up on the shore that you tried to poke it with a stick, or your boot. Another risk, particulary for children, is that a Portugese man o’war can look like a balloon and appeal to the curiosity of little people.

How to survive a jellyfish sting | Wild Survivor

The British coast is home to or visited by several species of jellyfish, small and large. Most are harmless and others only pack a mild sting that often either doesn’t need treatment or can be treated without medical intervention, however the adverse weather that has battered the Caribbean and America has added an extra element of danger to the mix. Whether the actual jellyfish is dead or alive, if the tentacles are still wet then they can sting or shock. Some species will give a sting similar to a nettle, while others will give a jolt likened to an electric shock.

The Portuguese man o’war is more infamous for being able to inflict immense pain and has been held responsible for human deaths in other countries. While it’s not technically a jellyfish, it still gets around like a jellyfish by being pushed around by the wind and tides. With tentacles that can reach up to fifty metres long, touching them can cause severe pain lasting from 20 minutes up to several hours, as well as leaving red welts across the skin. The stings can induce breathing difficulties and heart attacks and as a result those who are elderly, very young or have underlying health problems could be more at risk of death.  

So if you were to stand on one of these creatures on the beach or brush against one of these creatures while swimming, how do you treat it? The medical advice issued over the past few years has varied and the usual advice is to treat stings from each creature differently. However, the Pacific Cnidaria Research Laboratory at the University of Hawaii recently carried out research which was published in ‘Toxins’ journal this year to find the best first aid methods to treat Box jellyfish (which are very dangerous but not found in UK waters – yet) and Portuguese man o’war stings. The team will be researching into treating other jellyfish stings in the near future.

How to Treat a jellyfish sting:

  • Tentacles should be removed by tweezers, a clean stick or with gloved hands – but if they are across large areas of the body or on particularly sensitive areas then call 999 as hospital A&E assessment will be needed.
  • Soaking the sting site in hot water (water that is as hot as can be tolerated without burning the skin – around 45C) can also help to relieve pain. Using a heat pack can be as effective.
  • Paracetamol and/or Ibuprofen can be taken to relieve pain and mild inflammation.
  • If any symptoms of anaphylaxis (severe and life-threatening allergic reaction) develops then emergency hospital treatment is needed immediately. These symptoms can include but are not limited to: difficulty breathing, fast heartbeat, severe swelling and losing consciousness.
  • Current NHS guidelines for treating a Portuguese man o’war sting is to rinse in seawater and not to use vinegar. However the new research contradicts this advice by saying that rinsing can actually spread the microscopic parts responsible for the sting over an even wider area. The research team recommends rinsing the sting area with diluted vinegar as this was the only substance they found actually helps to deactivate the sting cells, then soaking the affected area in hot water, around 45C.

So while some advice remains inconsistent across various authorities, most jellyfish found in the UK won’t cause lasting harm but the best advice is always to be aware of your surroundings and definitely avoid coming into contact with a Portuguese Man o’War. If they have been found on a beach near you, find somewhere less hazardous to exercise dogs and children for a few weeks!

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