Be prepared for jellyfish

How to Treat a Jellyfish Sting
How to Treat a Jellyfish Sting


Here in the northeast, where I spend time with my family at the shore, the greatest threats to our fun in the surf have been a few crabs and the occasional jellyfish. I am sometimes called upon to manage mild stings and small cuts. No biggie, right? And, it is good for the kids to recognize we are sharing this world with other species.

This year is different. First, it was the dolphins. They were swimming closer than ever before. Of course, we love every minute of our private Sea World show, but the cute and cuddly stops there. There have been several shark sightings at nearby beaches, and yesterday, a Portuguese Man Of War washed up on our sand.

If you have been following the news, you know about the unusually high number of shark attacks in the Carolinas. Here in the tri-state area, there have been several Man of War stings, which are potentially fatal. All of this is adding up to absolutely no more caution by my kids. They love the ocean, and are either stupid enough or brave enough to dive right back in. My fingers are crossed for an incident-free summer, and I'm on heightened alert.

I'm not an environmentalist. I don't know why this is happening, whether it is global warming or a cyclical climate change. But, as a doctor, I do know you should be prepared to treat when you can.

Here is what you need to know about jellyfish stings:

While I am on the lookout for Portuguese Man of War jellyfish, it is much more likely I will encounter a sea nettle, which in general, are less painful and less serious.

It is important to understand how jellies actually cause harm, to be able to treat a sting effectively. Jellyfish "sting" by releasing nematocysts from their tentacles. These can attach to your skin, and while attached, they release chemicals. Some nematocysts fire immediately and some are delayed.

The goal of treatment is to remove and neutralize the nematocysts.

  • Do not use fresh water.

  • Use vinegar (Yes, I do keep some in my beach bag when I know jellyfish are hanging out in our swimming waters.) Pour it on the site for about 30 seconds and then soak a towel in the vinegar and hold it on there for several minutes.

  • If you don't have vinegar, make a mixture of seawater and baking soda after pouring it on the area, make a thick paste and lather it on the site.

  • Now, that you have neutralized the nematocysts, it is time to remove them. Shave the area gently with a razor or, if unavailable, the side of a credit card, to tease the little offenders out of the skin.

  • Follow up with ice and ibuprofen.

Really Important: Some jellyfish are very dangerous. If you are stung by one that is big, colorful, or looks different than the generic sea nettle, seek medical attention.

Rarely, a sting from a more benign jellyfish can be dangerous. You should seek medical attention if:

  • The sting covers a large part of the body

  • The person stung is very young or very old

  • The sting involves the face or genitals

  • There is difficulty breathing or the person's voice is changing

  • Loss of consciousness, weakness, nausea or muscle spasms

  • Hives at a site other than the sting site

  • Chest pain or irregular heart beat

I hope you get through the whole season without once having a screaming child interrupt your summer reading. Stop laughing ... it could happen. Granted, it is more likely you will have some minor emergencies with which to contend. Be prepared.

More from Dr. Karen Latimer:
10 Things to Have in Your Beach Bag.

Check out these photos of the deadly Man of War: