Taking the Sting out of Jellyfish


There is one creature found in the water that puts a little bit of fear into the heart of all water users. They are not aggressive, they are found all over the world and their size can range from the size of a thumbnail to bigger than a human. I am talking about jellyfish, which despite being one of the most dangerous things to be in the water with, they are defiantly one of the most beautiful creatures you will ever see underwater. They are very simple creatures that just float by aimlessly, never actually attacking anything, but this doesn’t make them any less hazardous.

The term jellyfish is commonly used to describe a huge number of marine creatures that can inflict a painful, or even life threatening sting. Although the correct use of the term jellyfish relates to specific creatures many people would also include sea wasps, anemones, hydroids and fire coral within the jellyfish category. The sting from any of these creatures occurs when the victim comes into contact with the creature’s tentacles or other body parts, which may carry millions of tiny stinging cells, each one equipped with a stinger and the creatures venom.

There are many factors that can influence the severity of a jellyfish sting such as species, size, time of year, geographic location and even the reaction of the individual. Many jellyfish species don’t sting at all (or so little we don’t even notice them). The majority of the painful jellyfish stings will result in mild burning and skin redness, however some of the more severe stings can result in excruciating pain, severe blistering and general illness (Nausea, vomiting, shock, spasms and shortness of breath).

Jellyfish seem to like some beaches more than others, especially around the Australian coastline where nets have been set up to try to protect beach goes. Although these nets are partially successful against fully grown jellyfish, these nets allow smaller specimens to pass through them. Even when beaches have jellyfish nets you should still be on alert. The infamous Box Jellyfish (Chironex fleckeri) of northern Australia contains one of the most potent venoms found in the animal kingdom. A sting from one of these can result in death within only a few minutes from severe shock, abnormal heartbeat and cessation of breathing.

In many parts of the world jellyfish swarms can be predicted and are carefully monitored by local authorities. Some beaches may be closed off because of swarms of dangerous jellyfish, it is very important to listen to these warnings and not attempt to enter the water as if you get into trouble it is very unlikely someone will come to your aid! If you plan on diving in areas where jellyfish swarm you should contact local dive shops or beach life guards as they may be able to tell where to avoid.

It is important that you never attempt to touch a jellyfish, even if it has washed up dead on the beach. The tentacles of dead jellyfish can retain their toxicity for months and should not be handled, even if they appear to be dried out and withered up, they can still produce a nasty sting. This is equally important if you just happen to find a tentacle washed up but no jellyfish. The broken off tentacle could easily be just as toxic as it would be if attached to a living jellyfish.

Regardless of the species of jellyfish that you may have encountered, these first aid tips will help you treat the sting. Your top priority is to keep checking the patient’s vital signs. Although most of the world’s jellyfish are pretty much harmless, there are a few that can be very dangerous, even fatal. It is very important that you monitor the effected divers breathing rate and pulse.

Keep the injured swimmer/snorkeler/diver quiet and comfortable. Make sure to keep other people away as much as possible. Some species of jellyfish can give a very nasty sting, and being smothered by other people will generally only make things worse. Make sure to remove all the stingers from the patient. They will continue to sting the patient even when removed from the jellyfish, especially if they are rubbed. It is very important to use tools to remove jellyfish stings, if you try to use your hands they will be stung too!

You will need to neutralise the affected area. This is most commonly done by applying vinegar to the wound, vinegar should be an essential part of any SCUBA Divers first aid kit. If no vinegar is available a 50-50 mixture of water and baking soda can also be used. Be prepared to treat an allergic reaction following a jellyfish sting. If possible try to carry an allergy kit within your first aid kit, including both oral antihistamines and injectable epinephrine (adrenaline). Even if no major allergic reaction occurs a dose of oral antihistamines can reduce the pain and swelling.

Although they are not pleasant to deal with, they are a part of the ocean world and something that all divers, snorkelers, swimmers and water enthusiasts need to be aware of. Everyday somewhere in the world there are reported incidents with stinging animals. The best thing to do is to be prepared in case of any contact with one. Every time you go out for a dive you should check your vinegar stocks just as importantly as you check your Oxygen supply. If you are diving in an area that may have dangerous or even potentially fatal jellyfish species then you need an emergency action plan in place so you know exactly what to do in the event of a sting.

‘Taking the Sting out of Jellyfish’ was written by Mike