Since the time of year is coming up where a lot of people start going to the beach, we thought it would be a good time to talk about jellyfish and how to avoid. Below we will make sure by the end of reading this you will know how to avoid jellyfish and what to do if you are stung by one.
What a Jellyfish is
Only about five percent of the body of a jellyfish is solid matter; the rest is water. Fascinating, elegant, and mysterious to watch in the water, take a jellyfish out of the water, and it becomes a much less fascinating blob. This is because jellyfish are about 95 percent water.
Lacking brains, blood, or even hearts, jellyfish are simple critters. They are composed of three layers: an outer layer, called the epidermis; a middle layer made of a thick, elastic, jelly-like substance called mesoglea; and an inner layer, called the gastrodermis. An elementary nervous system, or nerve net, allows jellyfish to smell, detect light, and respond to other stimuli. The simple digestive cavity of a jellyfish acts as both its stomach and intestine, with one opening for both the mouth and the anus.
These simple invertebrates are members of the phylum Cnidaria, which includes creatures such as sea anemones, sea whips, and corals. Like all members of the phylum, the body parts of a jellyfish radiate from a central axis. This “radial symmetry” allows jellyfish to detect and respond to food or danger from any direction.
Jellyfish can sting with their tentacles. While the severity of stings varies, in humans, most jellyfish stings result only in minor discomfort.
There are about 200 known species of jellyfish that inhabit our oceans.
Jellyfish are believed to have existed on Earth even before the dinosaurs, which makes them one of the oldest surviving species among marine creatures. Their lifespan can vary from as little as a few days to about a year. Jellyfish sting their prey using tentacles that have specialized cells known as cnidocytes. Contact with a jellyfish tentacle can trigger millions of cnidocytes to pierce the skin and inject venom. However, only the venom of few species causes an adverse reaction in humans.
Every ocean in the world is home to millions of jellyfish who are known to survive in all depths of water, right from coral sea beds to the deep bottom of oceans. They can be found in different sizes, varying from some as small as your thumbnail, to some as large as humans and even bigger. Jellyfish use their venom to stun their prey, so that it doesn’t struggle and damage its delicate tentacles. Jellyfish don’t have a brain, heart, bones, or eyes. They have an incomplete digestive system, meaning that they use the same opening for food intake and discarding waste. Jellyfish hunt passively using their tentacles as nets, their diet includes plankton, crustaceans, fish eggs, small fish and other jellyfish. Jellyfish have limited control over their movement and mostly free-float, as jellyfish squirt water from their mouths they are propelled forward.
What to do if you encounter a Jellyfish
There’s something outer-worldly about jellyfish. Their translucent bodies, the dangling tentacles floating in their wake, the way they glide elegantly through the water—it’s sometimes hard to believe that these beautiful specimens are living creatures.
But they are living things—in fact, they are living things that are perfectly capable of delivering a shockingly painful (and possibly lethal) sting.
Jellyfish tend to stay towards the surface of the ocean, so if you’re swimming or snorkeling in jellyfish territory, you need to know what to do if you encounter one up close. Here are a few things to keep in mind.
The Stinging Secret
The secret to the jellyfish’s sting lies within the cells on its tentacles. When a jellyfish’s tentacles encounter human skin, stinging structures located in their cells can pierce the skin, releasing poison into the victim. Note that the tentacle must contact the skin directly in order to release the poison, so wearing a stinger suit or a wet suit will help prevent stings.
Signals of Severity
A jellyfish sting can range in severity, depending on the type of jellyfish. Most aren’t lethal, but a few are: some species, including the box jellyfish (most commonly found in and near Australia), can deliver a sting strong enough to kill a human in just a few minutes.
Avoid an Encounter
If you’re in an area where it is known that jellyfish like to hang out, skip the swim altogether. Keep your eyes peeled for warning signs on beaches or ask locals about conditions.
Approach with Caution
If you see a jellyfish, be careful of getting too close. This remains true for beached and dying jellyfish, since they can still deliver a powerful sting. That seemingly dead sac of air half-buried in the sand might look harmless, but it’s not!
If you see a jellyfish in the water, stay cool. If possible, swim calmly away from the jellyfish towards shore. If there is no escape, tread slowly and hope that the jellyfish passes you by. Most jellyfish only sting when they are provoked.
If Someone Is Stung
The protocol for a jellyfish sting is relatively straightforward. The priority is to get the victim out of the water as soon as possible, without touching the affected area. Don’t let them scratch—this could worsen the stinging. Wash the sting site with warm saltwater to help stop the stinging.
Next, it’s time to remove the tentacles: something sturdy, like an angled credit card, tweezers, or even sticks if nothing else is available, can be used to scrape gently across the skin to detach any stuck tentacles. If you use your hands to remove the tentacles, be sure to wear gloves– or else you, too, could end up stung! Clean and bandage open sores and treat the patient with antihistamines and seek medical attention if necessary.
Call for Help ASAP If…
There are three jellyfish related incidents where you should absolutely call 911 without delay. The first: if the area affected by the sting affects more than half an arm or half a leg. The second: if the victim displays signs of a severe allergic reaction, like difficulty breathing, chest pains, or the swelling of the tongue or lips. An anaphylactic reaction to a jellyfish sting can be lethal. Finally: if you suspect the sting is from a box jellyfish, get help immediately.
What Not to Do
Ignore what you’ve seen on TV: urinating on a sting is not an effective treatment. Neither is applying fresh water to the wound.
For many years, many sources (including the American Red Cross) suggested rinsing with vinegar, but recent studies have shown that this might not always be effective. In fact, the research indicated that vinegar can make the stinging worse. Some people still swear by the vinegar method, but it doesn’t hurt to know both signs of the argument.
Tips to Avoid Jellyfish
Look for signs which warn about jellyfish-infested waters. Often beaches and bays where jellyfish congregate have posted warning signs, or purple flags (which signify hazardous marine life in many countries), making people aware of the danger. If you’re unsure of whether jellyfish inhabit a given beach, ask the lifeguard on duty if there has been jellyfish activity in the area recently. You should also leave the water if you spot a jellyfish and do not enter the water again until you have verified that it is not a dangerous variety.
Keep an eye out for anything that looks like a floating tentacle. As mentioned above, some species of jellyfish have tentacles which can sting even after the animal has died and they have detached from it and floated away. In fact, the dispersed tentacles from a single deceased Lion’s Mane jellyfish once stung an estimated 150 people swimming in New Hampshire (USA). Swimmers should therefore remain vigilant when swimming and leave the water if they sight anything which resembles a jellyfish tentacle, particularly if they are swimming in a region where highly dangerous species of jellyfish are found. Likewise, never touch a dead jellyfish that has washed up on shore.
Avoid the beach when jellyfish-attracting weather conditions are present. Jellyfish often wind up on the beach after periods of heavy rain or high winds, and they are also known to come closer to shore after periods of warmer weather. Note that some regions also experience a “jellyfish season” (e.g. Box Jellyfish are far more dense in Australian waters during the wet season which spans from October to May) where the animals become far more common; if you’re travelling, research when jellyfish season occurs and try to plan your trip at a different time.
Wear jellyfish repellant. Today, jellyfish repellant is widely available; in fact, there are now some brands of repellant which double as sunscreen. These lotions are PABA-free and non-comedogenic and protect against even Box Jellyfish and Sea Nettles through fooling the creatures into thinking the swimmer is another jellyfish (so they do not react with alarm and sting). Additionally, if mechanism fails, the lotion also includes an extract of plankton which is proven to help block a jellyfish’s sting sensor so that it cannot send the “sting” message to the jellyfish’s brain. As some poisonous types of jellyfish are very small, and thus easily contacted by accident, it is strongly advised that all swimmers entering jellyfish habitats apply jellyfish repellant.
What to Do if You Get Stung by a Jellyfish
As you may not realize you have been stung by a jellyfish owing to the tiny size of some species and the risk posed by floating tentacle pieces, it’s important to learn to identify the symptoms of a jellyfish sting. These include:
A burning, prickling or stinging pain. This may occur suddenly or several hours after you have left the water, depending on the type of jellyfish which stung you.
Tracks on the skin (often red, brown or purple) which reflect the imprints of tentacles in shape.
Tingling or numbness.
If you notice any of the above symptoms, check the water around you and take note of the appearance of the jellyfish which stung you so that you can describe it to a medical professional. Immediately notify the lifeguard on duty that you have been stung and attempt to identify whether you’re in danger of serious illness. If you have been stung by a very toxic species, the lifeguard should be able to perform CPR if needed and keep you stable until help arrives.
If it is established that your sting is not dangerous, you should:
Rinse the area repeatedly with salt water. Never use fresh water (e.g. from a water bottle) to rinse the sting as it can cause the tentacle to break down, spreading the stingers within it over a wider area. You should also be sure to avoid getting sand in the wounds, and never rub them with a towel. If you only realize you have been stung after you have left the beach, either purchase a saline solution to rinse it or use vinegar.
Treat the sting by soaking it. If your wound continues to hurt over the coming days, try soaking it in warm water with Epsom salt added to it. The combination of water and salt helps to remove venom from the sting site, shortening the duration of symptoms. Avoid “folk remedies” like applying alcohol or urine to the area—both will only cause further irritation.
Try an over-the-counter remedy. Oral antihistamines and steroidal anti-inflammatory creams can both help to counteract the venom of jellyfish stings and quell the body’s reactions to the toxin. Be aware, however, that other common remedies for plant and insect stings, like lidocaine or calamine lotion, don’t tend to be particularly effective for treating jellyfish stings. Rather than applying such lotions, it’s better to place your focus on keeping the wound clean and covered in order to mitigate any risk of infection and facilitate healing.
As is the case with any injury, if you have been stung by a jellyfish, you should remain vigilant for signs of serious illness; if the pain from your sting worsens significantly or suddenly, or if you begin to run a fever, feel weak or dizzy, or have a rapid heartbeat, seek medical attention immediately. Also, be aware that if you have been stung by a Man O’ War, even if you survive the initial sting, it’s common to experience symptoms of illness for many months after the pain of the initial wound is gone. Talk to your healthcare provider in order to come up with a plan for symptom management.
As a final note, it’s important to remember that while jellyfish stings should be taken seriously, many healthy people survive contact with even the most dangerous of species, so if you get stung, there’s no need to panic—simply take the precautions outlined above. Elderly people, children, and those with existing medical conditions (asthma, diabetes, autoimmune conditions, etc.) comprise many of the recorded jellyfish-related fatalities and should practice extra caution while in the water.
Jellyfish stings have various common symptoms:
Swelling and redness
Symptoms usually remit after a few hours; however, in some cases, if a patient is allergic to the sting or suffers other illnesses, symptoms can be more severe and medical treatment may be necessary.
What to do if you get stung by a Jellyfish
If you get stung by a jellyfish, you are going to know about it! Here are a few things you need to keep in mind after being stung:
Clean the area affected by the sting
Never use regular water (this could break the stinging cells and cause another sting)
Use physiological saline solution (which you can buy in any chemist) or sea water to clean the area affected by the sting
Apply cold over the sting; make sure you don’t apply ice directly on the injury, wrap it up in a cloth or towel. Do this for about 15 minutes.
Remove any remains of a jellyfish tentacle on the skin; make sure you don’t use your bare hands. Use gloves or tweezers or even a credit card.
It is standard procedure to apply some form of antihistamine; we recommend you go to the chemist or hotel doctor (if near hotel) and explain what has happened so that they can prescribe adequate treatment.
If the pain is very severe or the victim’s state worsens, go to the nearest medical center as soon as possible.
Do not rub the sting with a towel or with sand; this will just make the injury worse.
There are various myths associated with Jellyfish stings and how to treat their stings. Below we’ve highlighted the main ones you want to avoid.
Don’t rub sand on the wound. You may have seen this in movies but it’s not a good idea.
Don’t use soap to clean the area where you’ve been stung.
Don’t rub alcohol on the wound.
Do not urinate on the wound.
All the above ‘remedies’ only result in the spreading of the venom over the skin and increases the risk of infection (especially using sand or urine).
Another liquid often used to calm the pain of a sting is vinegar. Although this can be effective in treating the stings of some species, it can have adverse effects with others like the Portuguese Manowar. We recommend you stick to the recommended method outlined above.
1) Look out for flags like the one in the image above. If the lifeguards have put this flag up it means that there are jellyfish in the water and there is a risk of getting stung.
2) Jellyfish will often get washed up on the shore; make sure you don’t touch them and be careful with kids as their inquisitiveness means they are prone to being stung when playing on the shore.
3) There is a special cream which acts as protection against sunburn and jellyfish stings. Apparently, it includes a plankton extract that acts on 4 different levels to avoid triggering the jellyfish’s stinging mechanism with the following results:
Causes jellyfish tentacles to slip over your skin
It confuses the sensors in the stinging cells; this leads them to believe they are touching another jellyfish
Blocks communication between the sensors and the cell body
Releases inhibitors which prevent the unleashing of stinging darts.
Well, you are now equipped to deal with these annoying creatures which can potentially ruin a pleasant afternoon on the beach. Luckily these jellyfish rarely appear, but at least you’ll know what to do if you do happen to come across them on your travels!
We hope this helps you this year in avoiding jellyfish and what to do if you get stung by one. Being aware of these things will increase your chances of having an awesome time at the beach!