We've all been there: happily swimming in the sea one day when something brushes your leg. You move away quickly, worried it's a jellyfish. More often than not, it's just a piece of seaweed. But sometimes it is in fact a jellyfish, so how do you know if you've been stung, is it dangerous and, most importantly, are you really meant to pee on a jellyfish sting?
What is a jellyfish sting?
There are more than 2,000 species of jellyfish in the world and not all of them sting. Some look like small blobs or floating plastic bags, while others are much bigger and more colourful. Jellyfish have tentacles hanging beneath them which they use to catch their prey, and it's these tentacles that sting.
'Jellyfish have long tentacles that trail from their bodies,' explains Abdeh, 'and these tentacles have thousands of tiny, barbed stingers that are filled with venom.'
Jellyfish don't deliberately target humans, but people are often stung when they accidentally brush against the tentacles. 'The tentacles have microscopic triggers on the surface which release the stingers,' adds Abdeh. 'These stingers penetrate the skin and release venom into your body. If jellyfish have washed up on the beach, these stingers can still be released if you touch them.'
While jellyfish stings can be painful, most are not medical emergencies and can be easily treated with simple first aid. However, certain jellyfish (such as the box jellyfish, which is not found in UK waters thankfully) can be very dangerous and even deadly.
How can you prevent jellyfish stings?
Avoiding the sea during jellyfish season is, of course, the number one way to rule out being stung by a jellyfish, says Abdeh. In the UK, jellyfish season is from mid-spring through to late summer, but it will vary depending on where in the world you are, so if you're aiming to avoid sting-season, do your research beforehand.
'Secondly, if you are planning to go swimming, diving or enjoy any other activity in areas of the water where it is possible to be stung, wear a wetsuit or protective swimming gear,' says Abdeh. 'Skin or "stinger" suits are available to buy from diving stores.'
'Protective footwear that you can swim in is also a sensible option, as you can be stung by a jellyfish in shallow waters too,' he adds.
Jellyfish sting symptoms
The symptoms of a jellyfish sting can vary depending on the severity of the sting and the type and size of the jellyfish. Most jellyfish stings are not emergencies but they are often uncomfortable so expect pain, red marks, itching, numbness and tingling with a typical sting.
The most common signs that you have been stung by a jellyfish include the following:
A pain that may burn, prick or sting.
Swelling and itching.
A throbbing sensation that occurs up your arms or legs.
Red/brown/purple tracks on the skin where you came into contact with the jellyfish’s tentacles
Serious jellyfish sting symptoms
Serious jellyfish sting symptoms can affect more than one body system and may require urgent medical attention. 'In this situation, the reaction may occur immediately or hours after you have been stung,' says Abdeh.
In serious jellyfish sting cases, you may experience symptoms including the following:
Nausea and vomiting
'The severity of the sting varies depending on the type of jellyfish you were stung by and how large it was,' says Abdeh. 'The length of time you were exposed to the stingers and your age can also have an impact. Severe reactions are more common in children and adults who are unwell.'
⚠️ If you suspect you might have been stung by a jellyfish and you have a severe reaction or experience any of the above symptoms, seek urgent medical attention.
Jellyfish sting possible complications
Most jellyfish stings are not serious and can be treated easily with simple first aid. However, some jellyfish stings can cause the following serious complications, so symptoms should not be ignored:
• Irukandji syndrome
Irukandji syndrome is a painful, potentially lethal condition caused by certain types of box jellyfish. 'This syndrome can cause chest and stomach pain, heart problems and high blood pressure,' says Abdeh. 'Although rare, it can also lead to cardiac arrest and death.'
• Hypersensitivity reactions
Delayed hypersensitivity is an allergic immune reaction that usually occurs 48–72 hours after exposure to the allergen. 'Delayed hypersensitivity reactions are a risk factor after being stung by a jellyfish,' says Abdeh. 'This can cause skin rashes and irritations, as well as skin blistering, which may not occur for up to two weeks after being stung.'
How to treat jellyfish stings
Most jellyfish stings can be treated with simple first aid, while some may need full medical treatment. 'Treatment will depend on the type of jellyfish that stung you, how severe the sting is and how your body reacts to it,' explains Abdeh.
For simple jellyfish sting first aid treatment, try the following:
1. Do not pee on a jellyfish sting
First things first: peeing on a jellyfish sting to treat it is a myth, so don't do it!
2. Rinse with fresh water
Rinse the affected area with seawater - not fresh water.
3. Remove the jellyfish spines
Remove any jellyfish spines from the skin using tweezers or the edge of a bank card. 'Most stings can be treated with first-aid, which will mean carefully removing the visible stingers with tweezers,' says Abdeh.
4. Soak the sting in warm water
Soak the skin in very warm water, as hot as can be tolerated and use hot flannels or towels if necessary. 'The skin should be soaked in hot water for at least 20 minutes,' says Abdeh.
5. Take pain relief medicine
Take pain relief medicine such as paracetamol or ibuprofen to ease discomfort from the jellyfish sting.
6. Consider allergy medicine
Antihistamines are drugs which are used to treat allergic rhinitis and other allergies. If you develop a skin rash or other symptoms of a delayed reaction similar to an allergic reaction, oral medication may be prescribed, says Abdeh. 'Oral antihistamines or corticosteroids are commonly prescribed in these situations, sometimes alongside a painkiller,' he says.
6. Watch out for your eyes
If you get stung by a jellyfish on or near the delicate eye area, seek urgent medical attention. 'If you are stung in or near the eye, you will need to have your eye flushed by a specialist,' says Abdeh.
7. Seek medical attention
If you experience a severe reaction to the jellyfish sting or the affected area becomes very painful, starts swelling, or there are streaks coming out of the wound, the sting could be infected so do not delay in seeking urgent medical attention.
Last updated: 26-04-2021
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