Staying Healthy at the Beach: How to Avoid, Prevent, and Treat Jellyfish Stings

Walking on a beach or swimming in the ocean can be fun and relaxing. But just like any other activities, accidents can happen. This topic will help you determine the next steps to take if you have a jellyfish sting. Jellyfish are often present in coastal waters, having been brought ashore by winds or ocean currents. They are most common in warm ocean waters, especially along the Atlantic coast of the United States.

Jellyfish are members of a large group of venomous marine animals that also includes fire coral and sea anemones. They are present all over the world and cause injury and illness through the release of venom when their tentacles come in contact with skin (the source of that unpleasant stinging sensation). While the sting of a jellyfish can cause severe illness and extreme pain, documented deaths are rare.

Jellyfish stings cause immediate, intense pain and burning that can last for several hours. Raised, red welts develop along the site of the sting, which may look like you have been hit with a whip. The welts may last for 1 to 2 weeks, and itchy skin rashes may appear 1 to 4 weeks after the sting. Fortunately, most jellyfish stings are not severe. Extensive stings, allergic reactions, or severe toxic reactions are not common but do occur. To avoid the risk of drowning, swimmers should get out of the water as soon as they realize they have been stung.

If you have a jellyfish sting:

  • Do not rub the tentacles with your hands, a towel, sand, or clothing.
  • Soak a compress in household vinegar (5% acetic acid solution) and hot water. Apply to the affected area to prevent further stings.
    If vinegar is not available, rinse the area with large amounts of salt water. Do not use fresh water; this may cause the tentacles to release venom. Do not use urine, gasoline, kerosene, or turpentine.

    • If vinegar is not available, unseasoned meat tenderizer, baking soda, or one-quarter-strength household ammonia may be useful for treating jellyfish stings. Be careful not to get these products in your eyes. Meat tenderizer or baking soda may be sprinkled directly onto the affected area or made into a paste by adding water and then applied to the skin. Apply meat tenderizer to the skin for no longer than 15 minutes. Soak a cloth in ¼ cup (60 mL) ammonia mixed with ¾ cup (180 mL) water and apply it to the affected area.
  • Rinse eye stings with a saline solution, such as Artificial Tears.
    Do not put vinegar, alcohol, or any other “stinger solution” in the eyes. The skin around the eye can be dabbed with a cloth soaked in vinegar, but you must be extremely careful not to get any of the solution in the eye.
  • After decontamination, pick off tentacles with a stick or your hand protected by a towel or glove. Be very careful not to rub or press the tentacles.
  • If it is available, apply a lather of shaving cream or soap, or a paste of baking soda, flour, or talc to the skin. The stinging cells will stick to the shaving cream or paste and can then be easily scraped off with a safety razor, a knife edge, or the edge of a credit card.
    • Take an antihistamine, such as diphenhydramine or chlorpheniramine, or apply 1% hydrocortisone cream to help control itching.
      Do not use the cream on children younger than age 2 unless your doctor tells you to. Do not use in the rectal or vaginal area in children younger than age 12 unless your doctor tells you to. Also, don’t give antihistamines to your child unless you’ve checked with the doctor first.
  • Use an ice pack to help relieve pain.
  • Clean any open sores 3 times per day, apply an antiseptic ointment, such as bacitracin, and cover with a light bandage.

You can limit your risk of being injured by jellyfish by doing the following:

  • Be prepared with first aid supplies that might be needed for a injury.
  • Watch for warning signs that are posted when there is a jellyfish invasion.
  • Do not touch jellyfish and watch for beached jellyfish as their tentacles may still sting.
  • Do not rely on clothing or on coating the skin with petroleum jelly (such as Vaseline) to prevent stings. Wear a wet suit to reduce your risk of getting stung.
  • Wear protective shoes when walking on the beach. Avoid stepping on marine life.
  • Talk to your doctor about carrying an allergy kit if you have had any sort of allergic reaction or toxic reaction to a marine sting in the past.
  • Consider using a topical jellyfish sting inhibitor lotion, such as Safe Sea.

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