Advice On What First Aid To Give For Jellyfish Stings

Jellyfish Sting

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How Do Jellyfish Sting You

Jellyfish sting by deploying coiled tubules loaded with venom called nematocysts. When nematocysts are touched or stepped on, they inject their venom directly into the flesh. Think of a jellyfish sting like being bitten by something with a mouthful of microscopic needles for teeth.

What causes stings by Jellyfish is the simultaneous discharge of thousands of microscopic stinging nematocysts. Nematocysts are located on tentacles and in some species on the body of the Jellyfish. The more surface area in contact with the Jellyfish tentacles, the more venom is injected, increasing the severity of pain the person feels.

Children playing on the beach often find sea creatures washed up on the beach. Kids pick it up without realising what type of sea creature it is and are instantly stung. Likewise, adults and children swimming in the tropical waters of Australia often share the water with several ultra-venomous types of jellyfish-like the Box jellyfish, Portuguese Man of War, and the exceptionally excruciating, world’s most venomous, almost invisible, Irukandji (irr-a-kan-jee) jellyfish.

What Do Jellyfish Stings Feel Like

Jellyfish stings cause immediate, sharp pain and an acute inflammatory skin reaction at the sting site. The redness, welts and swelling may progress to local skin destruction. Jellyfish stings are generally concentrated in tropical areas of Australia, with a few instantly recognisable Blue Bottle swarms washing up on beaches around Australia. 

Blue bottles occur in the cooler southern regions around Australia when the winds blow from the east onshore, depositing large swarms onto the beach at the water’s edge or high tide line. They are easily identifiable and look like a blue bubble gum bubble with long hair thin blue tentacles. 

They can be hard to see when they are floating in the water for novices and the well-seasoned.

Children are particularly vulnerable because of their smaller body size. The venom potency to size ratio of the Jellyfish plays a large role in the level of pain severity. The smaller the body, the more pain will be felt by the same amount of venom injected into the body. Children are significantly smaller in body mass than adults making jellyfish stings more potent and potentially life-threatening to them.

It is crucial for parents to be aware of what symptoms warrant medical attention as soon as possible after being stung and know what types of Jellyfish are common to the area you intend to swim.

A minor sting from a jellyfish or any other sea creature with no visible tentacles is followed by severe pain, nausea and vomiting and difficulty breathing in just 20-30 minutes. Victims may develop heart failure, pulmonary oedema, and hypertensive stroke, among other symptoms.

Are All Jellyfish Deadly In Australia

Potentially fatal stings are caused by a handful of Australian jellyfish types. The two most common and well-known are:

1. Box Jellyfish

A human wrapped in several metres of Box Jellyfish tentacles can cause respiratory and cardiac arrest within a few minutes.

2. Irukandji Jellyfish and other Jellyfish causing Irukandji-like syndrome

Several small to medium-sized offshore and onshore Jellyfish are known or suspected to produce an ‘Irukandji-like’ syndrome and are too small to be seen by most people until they have been stung.

3. Blue Bottles are not considered to be tropical and, in most cases, are not deadly or fatal, only painful. The treatment for Blue Bottles is different to that of tropical stings.

Treatment For Jellyfish Stings And Prevention Of Further Stinging

When a sting occurs, pieces of tentacles and non-discharged nematocysts may be left on the victim’s skin. It is essential to stop non-discharged nematocysts from being able to sting so that subsequent handling or treatment does not cause further stings to the patient or the person treating them.

Vinegar inhibits nematocyst discharge of most Jellyfish but does not provide pain relief from the venom already injected. Vinegar causes the toxin in the stinging part (nematocyst) to become inactive and is therefore recommended for tropical waters where Box jellyfish and Irukandji stings occur.

Some non-Australian doctors say vinegar is harmful and bicarb soda should be used to neutralise the sting. Both options work equally.

 A box of Bicarb soda is easier to place in the beach bag than a bottle of vinegar to take to the beach or keep in the car. However, if you are ever pulled over and your vehicle is searched, you might have issues convincing the searching police officer you are carrying bicarb soda for First Aid purposes, not cocaine, so vinegar is the preferred and government authority-recommended Australian option.

Tropical Priority – To Preserve Life (Box Jellyfish, Irukandji)

Remove from water and restrain if necessary. Resuscitate if required. Apply vinegar for 30 seconds, liberally dousing the stung area and then scrape or pick off any remaining tentacles. Do not use bare fingers! Seashells, car keys, tweezers, and credit cards all work to remove tentacles. 

If you don’t have vinegar to inhibit the venom, carefully pick off the tentacles using tweezers and rinse the area with seawater. Do not apply fresh water as this may cause more stinging.

Apply a cold pack to the area (to help with pain management) and seek the assistance of a lifeguard or emergency medical treatment. For emergencies, call 000 and begin CPR if the patient has stopped breathing.

While conscious, the patient will scream hysterically and be in obvious writhing agony. Nothing you do will stop that. The pain from an Irukandji jellyfish sting is currently the world’s most agonisingly painful condition. So painful the victim can resort to begging to have their life ended, and no amount of narcotics will touch the pain while the person is conscious. 

Treatment in hospitals historically requires the patient to be placed in a medical coma while being treated. It is possible to survive an Irukandji jellyfish sting if the person is treated immediately. However, they can prove fatal due to the time it takes to get the person to a hospital for treatment.

Non-Tropical Priority – To Relieve Pain (Blue Bottles)

Do not use vinegar or rub the sting area. Rest, reassure and monitor the person. Using safety precautions, pick off any remaining stinging cells and rinse with seawater. Have a hot shower or apply heat where possible by placing the affected area in water as hot as the person can tolerate but not so hot as to cause a scald or burn for 20 minutes. Use a cold pack if the pain is not relieved by heat or if hot water is not available.

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Update Your First Aid Skills

If this helped you, it might be time to broaden your current First Aid knowledge and skills. FACE has a wide range of nationally accredited First Aid courses delivered online or face-to-face in a location that suits your busy schedule. Check out and book a class or two for yourself and a friend. Learn and become certified in the latest First Aid protocols and treatments.

While you are on our website, check out our FACE Blog page for a wide range of interesting topics to improve your First Aid skills and general knowledge.

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