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Stinging Critters Can Pose Poison Hazard for Beachgoers

Armen Hareyan's picture

Jellyfish Sting and Beach Safety

They have neither brains nor bones, but that does not stop the tentacles of a jellyfish from ruining a perfectly fun day at the beach. Experts at the Blue Ridge Poison Center at the University of Virginia Health System warn that the sting from a jellyfish can range from mild to fatal for humans, depending on the species involved and how much skin is exposed to the venom.

There are more than 200 jellyfish species world-wide. Thankfully, species found at beaches on the U.S. east coast are much less toxic. The most common symptoms reported from these jellyfish stings are:

  • A localized stinging or burning sensation

  • Redness and swelling

  • Throbbing or shooting pain

  • Blistering or a raised rash at the site of the sting.

Occasionally, a victim may experience more serious symptoms that may require medical care, including:

  • Intense pain, swelling, or redness that spreads out to other parts of the body not originally in contact with the tentacles.

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  • Increased sweating or tearing of the eyes

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Dizziness, headache, fainting

  • Muscle spasms

  • Coughing, wheezing, difficulty breathing.

Often pieces of tentacles cling to the skin after contact, and they can continue to release poison into the skin for several hours. These should be immediately removed by gently scraping with a towel, a handful of wet sand, or the thin edge of a plastic knife or credit card. Apply vinegar to the sting to help prevent any further release of poison. Certain substances may actually increase the amount of poison released and should NOT be applied to the skin, including fresh water (salt water is fine), alcohol of any kind, and ammonia. Over-the-counter pain relievers, antihistamines, topical cortisone creams, cold packs applied to the sting, and immersion of the stung area in hot water all may provide some relief for victims with mild symptoms.

The most dangerous species, the 'box jelly' (or 'sea wasp'), live only in the Indo-Pacific waters near Australia. These jellyfish have been known to cause death within hours or even minutes of a sting! To capture food, jellies have a net of long tentacles that contain thousands of poisonous, stinging cells. When the tentacles brush against prey or a human, thousands of tiny stinging cells explode, launching microscopic barbed stingers (called nematocysts) and poison into the victim. The stinging cells also protect the jellyfish from being eaten by predators.

For advice or more information on jellyfish stings, contact the Blue Ridge Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222. Cell users dial 1-800-451-1428.