Got a jellyfish sting? It’s easier than you may think! Jellyfish causes most marine envenomations (that’s the technical term for the poisonous sting).
There are more than 100 species of jellyfish (“Medusa” in Italian). The most common in Italy is called rhizostoma pulmo, aka the barrel jellyfish. Recently another species has become a regular in the Italian seas, the rhopilema nomadica.
On the other hand, episodes of stinging are increasing, as jellyfish are becoming more present along the Italian beaches. From 2009 to 2015 the number of sightings reported went from 300 to 3000.
A possible reason for this surge is global warming, which is bringing an increasing number of tropical species to the Mediterranean sea.
The person who is stung by a jellyfish usually feels immediate pain. A few minutes later (sometimes more) linear red whiplike lash marks appear on the skin, most of the times itchy, burning and throbbing.
Many homemade remedies are recommended, usually passed on by people on the seaside through word of mouth. A number of popular remedies for treating jellyfish stings are suggested, but evidence regarding their effectiveness varies and, in some cases, benefit is limited to specific jellyfish species.
Fact. It is important to remove tentacles promptly since they might continue to fire toxins into the skin even after being ripped off from the jellyfish. This can be done by brushing them off with any plastic object (e.g. a credit card).
Myth. It’s actually the opposite. Rubbing the skin can increase the release of toxins by the jellyfish cells attached to the skin, worsening the irritation.
Myth. Fresh water (as opposed to seawater) might increase the release of toxins with worsening of symptoms. It is better to use some seawater to rinse the skin in order to remove as much of the tentacles as possible from the skin.
Fact and Myth.In-vitro testing shows that baking soda seems to work well only with some species (C. hysoscella, C. capillata, P. Physalis). If nothing else is available, three teaspoons of baking soda mixed in one teaspoon sea water can be gently applied to the affected skin. However, if your jellyfish is of a different type, this may be completely ineffective.
Fact and Myth. Vinegar (acetic acid) works pretty well as first aid for serious jellyfish envenomation, in particular for some species like C. fleckeri (Australian box jellyfish) and life-threatening stings by Carybdea alata (Hawaiian box jellyfish). In-vitro studies have found that it blocks the release of toxins from some of this species. Although it may be useful also in other species, it does not treat already established envenomation effects and the pain relief it provides is certainly inferior to the one associated with other methods.
Myth. False and dangerous. In spite of what we learned in Friends, where Monica is stung by a jellyfish and Joey helps her with urine, this remedy has no scientific grounds. In-vitro studies show that human urine actually triggers the release of toxins by several jellyfish species and may also increase the pain.
Fact. After tentacle removal, the very first next step is hot water immersion. The water temperature should be around 40 to 45°C (104 to 113°F) applied either by immersion of the affected area or by hot shower for approximately 20 minutes. The rule of thumb is to use the hottest water tolerated on a non-stinged area. The jellyfish venom is a protein and heat alters the protein structure. This reduces the pain better than any other first aid measure.
It is important to remember that after a jellyfish sting it’s better to keep the affected area covered by a total sunblock sunscreen for at least 2 weeks because of the inflammatory reaction that could cause permanent darkening of the skin.
After being stung by a jellyfish it is a good idea to see a doctor who will provide all the supportive measure to control the pain and reduce the inflammation. In particular, if you experience shortness of breath, wheezing, flushed skin and dizziness, immediate medical attention is necessary. Make sure to tell the doctor you were stung by a jellyfish. If you are still in Italy and you cannot find an English speaking doctor, you can say “mi ha punto una medusa!” (“I was stung by a jellyfish”).