Did you know jellyfish are responsible for killing approximately 8 times as many people as sharks and causing far more injuries every year. (1) Despite consisting of 95% water and possessing no brain or spine, jellyfish are armed with numerous tentacles that, if touched, can lead to an extremely painful, often life-threatening sting. With scientists conceding that human-led environmental changes such as global warming and overfishing are encouraging jellyfish populations to surge, this boom in jellyfish populations has, not surprisingly, coincided with an increased frequency of mass jellyfish stings. All divers, swimmers, and beach-goers should know how to treat jellyfish stings (2). Fortunately, there are several natural remedies for jellyfish stings you can try. Indeed, given many jellyfish stings occur far from a hospital, natural remedies for jellyfish stings may be your only option.
Simple though jellyfish maybe, nature has equipped these floating beasts with an armory of stinger cells with the ability to fire toxic harpoons (nematocysts) and upon bursting, they fire at a speed that surpasses a gunshot. The jellyfish use these stingers (I say ‘use’, but there really is no conscious action), for self-defense and to immobilize the small fish they prey on.
The five most lethal jellyfish species include the Sea Nettle (common on both coasts of North America), the Lion’s Mane Jellyfish (found throughout the North Atlantic, the UK, and in cooler Australian waters), the Portuguese Man o’ War (the Atlantic Ocean, the Indian and Pacific Ocean), the Irukandji Jellyfish (Australia) and the Box Jellyfish (Australia).
A sting by the Irukandji Jellyfish or the Box Jellyfish can be fatal: the 43 known species of box jellyfish are responsible for more deaths and serious injuries than sharks, sea snakes, and stingrays combined (3).
Because jellyfish have no central nervous system, killing a jellyfish is quite hard in the sense that its body parts will remain ‘alive’ long after separation. Jellyfish stingers and tentacles stay active, long after a jellyfish is dismembered; a recent incident at a New Hampshire beach involved 150 people getting stung by the fragmented tentacles from a single washed up lion’s mane jellyfish.
Jellyfish sting symptoms
Symptoms of jellyfish stings by these lethal species have been likened to being “stabbed […] with a hot screwdriver” and having “a thousand lit match heads” burning into one’s skin (4).
If you experience a sting that results in excruciating pain, immediately call for emergency medical help (antivenom may be administered for box jellyfish stings).
This is also necessary if the sting triggers a serious allergic reaction (anaphylaxis), which may cause several symptoms:
- a rapid development of a rash;
- shortness of breath;
- severe dizziness or fainting;
- persistent sneezing or coughing;
- swelling around the lips and eyes;
- chest tightness;
- difficulty swallowing;
- signs of shock (pale skin, rapid pulse, and fainting);
- hoarse voice (5).
However, most jellyfish stings are mild (although still painful) and cause redness around the sting area and raised inflamed skin where the actual stinger touched. Jellyfish stings are closer to burns than they are to insect stings or bites, and the treatment of jellyfish stings (detailed below) reflects that.
The pictures below show a mild jellyfish sting. You can see the redness of the skin and at the center, the skin is swelling where the stinger made contact. This sting on my son’s leg is 2 hours old.
This is the same jellyfish sting after two days. The redness around the wound has gone, but the actual area of contact with the stingers has formed small scabs as the wound oozed some pus. The wound is very similar to a carpet burn or turf burn, in that it is superficial, spread over a large area and will ooze some pus, but unlike carpet burns which can fail to scab, mild jellyfish stings will scab over quite quickly.
The pictures above are for a mild jellyfish sting and did not leave a scar. More potent jellyfish will obviously cause more severe wounds and they will scar. It is very important that when applying natural remedies for jellyfish stings that you include some anti-inflammatory measures to reduce the risk of scarring.
Natural remedies for jellyfish stings
Different home remedies have varying efficacies for treating the stings afflicted by different jellyfish species. To make things worse, research conducted on different home remedies for jellyfish stings suggest that while some remedies are the ‘go to’ remedy for certain species, when applied to other species, they can actually aggravate the sting.
The home remedies will depend on whether the sting is from the Physalia Species or not. The Physalia species (Portuguese man-of-war, Blue bottle) are not technically jellyfish and this is why the treatment of their sting differs.
So when deciding which remedy to use, you may need to identify the species and then use the following home remedies for jellyfish accordingly.
- Rinse the jellyfish sting with sea water
Irrespective of which species has caused the sting, you will need to remove or deactivate the remaining stingers stuck to the wound.
Jellyfish stingers remain active long after separation from the jelly fish and any tentacles or stingers on your skin will have to be removed with great care.
First, rinse wound. This sounds easy but already the caveats start.
Never use fresh water on jellyfish stings
For all species, this causes the remaining nematocysts to fire.
The sea water does not de-activate the stingers of any Jellyfish and is neutral. When rinsing with seawater, try to make sure that the stingers do not wash over other body parts as they will continue to sting. All seawater rinsing will do is wash away some stingers which may cause some to fire, but if vinegar is unavailable or the sting is from the physalia species, it is the only rinsing option and will remove many stingers.
2. Rinse the jellyfish sting with vinegar
Despite the general circulation of the idea of treating jellyfish stings with rubbing alcohol, ammonia, lemon juice, meat tenderizer and human urine, only vinegar has been proven to be an effective remedy for jellyfish stings. Its crucial ingredient, acetic acid, works to decrease envenomation by the nematocysts on the skin, prevent the firing of un-discharged nematocysts, and to decrease the inflammation and pain resulting from envenomation by the nematocysts (6).
Douse the afflicted body part with vinegar to allow its acidic properties to alleviate the pain and prevent the release of additional venom.
Do not use vinegar on the Physalia species.
Laboratory studies have shown that vinegar causes the stingers of the Physalia species to fire.
3. Remove the remaining stingers
There are many home remedies websites that propose that the remaining stingers can be removed by rubbing with a towel, scraping the sting with an ID/credit card or even shaving.
Fortunately, this has been tested in a laboratory and the conclusion is categorical. These methods do not work and will aggravate the sting by causing the remaining nematocysts to fire.
Think about it. The nematocysts are designed to fire when the come into contact with foreign bodies. They are mini pressure switches. The pressure applied by scraping or rubbing is a sure-fire way of activating the remaining stingers.
There is only one way of removing the stingers that did not fall away in the rinse. Use tweezers and carefully pluck them out.
The chart above shows the results of research undertaken by the Smithsonian Institute on Jellyfish stings (Not the Physalia species).
They studied the area of skin affected by jellyfish venom over time for different methods of rinsing and stinger removal.
The most obvious conclusion is that scraping the stingers off is a terrible idea, especially if the stingers have not been deactivated with vinegar.
Do not rub, scrape or shave jellyfish stings
The affected area of skin is up to four times larger if scraping is used. If the stingers have been deactivated with vinegar, then plucking the stingers out has only a marginal benefit.
4. Baking Soda
Different home remedies have varying efficacies for treating the stings afflicted by different jellyfish species. There is nevertheless sufficient evidence and consensus that baking soda was beneficial in preventing further ruptures of the nematocysts of several jellyfish species, including the Portuguese man o’ war, the Chrysaora genus (the Atlantic sea nettle, compass jelly, Pacific sea nettle, purple-striped sea nettle, northern sea nettle and black sea nettle) and the Cyanea genus (ghost jellyfish, lion’s mane jellyfish, blue jellyfish) (7).
Hence, after rinsing the wound with sea water and removing the tentacles, apply an ice pack to the wound and then apply a paste of salt water and baking soda. After allowing the paste to sit for several minutes, rinse it off with salt water.
5. Ice Packs
A study found that the application of ice packs to the affected skin area was effective in reducing the pain from caused by the Physalia genus (i.e. the Pacific man o’ war and the Portuguese man o’ war) (8). A single skin application of ice packs successfully alleviated the pain in all 82 victims who reported mild pain. A second ice pack application was successful in resolving the symptoms of 98% of the remaining 45 patients who reported moderate pain, and in 75% of the 32 patients who were suffering from severe pain.
To use this remedy, simply place an icepack onto your infected skin area to alleviate the inflammation and to numb the pain.
Ice packs can also be used for pain relief for stings caused by the Irukandji Jellyfish, but hospitalization is still recommended due to the potential lethality of its venom.
However, it should be noted that there is conflicting research with regards to ice packs with some research suggesting for certain jellyfish species, nematocyst discharge may be increased. (9)
6. Hot Bath/shower
While vinegar rinses and baking soda only work on some species and may make things worse for some species, and ice pack treatment is also controversial, what should one do if the jellyfish species is unidentifiable?
The one home remedy for jellyfish stings that we unable to find conflicting research is the application of heat.
In a trial experiment conducted on 96 swimmers accidentally stung by Physalia, there was strong evidence of decreased pain at 10 and 20 min post-treatment with hot water immersion at 45 °C, as compared to ice packs .
The high temperature was shown to deactivate the venom
7. Chamomile cream
Chamomile is a member of the daisy family and has been shown in studies to be anti-inflammatory and to control immune response and what’s more, to be as effective as hydrocortisone, the main active ingredient in topical steroid creams. (11)
It can be used for a wide range of inflammatory skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema and the same anti-inflammatory properties can be used as an alternative to steroid creams and applied to soothe the pain and inflammation from jellyfish stings.
- Wear a protective suit when swimming to reduce the area of exposed skin
- Do not pull off any tentacles that are still attached; wait five minutes after dousing the wound with vinegar (NB Not Physalia) and then pick them off with tweezers.
- Pain relievers such as paracetamol and ibuprofen can be used to alleviate the pain
- Antihistamines such as Telfast, Claratyne and Phenergan can be used to relieve itching and swelling
- A cream with hydrocortisone can be used to reduce inflammation
- Do not rinse the wound with freshwater, alcohol or methylated spirits, since the change in pH can cause the nematocysts to release more venom
- Despite the popular 1997 Friends episode where Monica’s jellyfish sting is treated effectively with Joey’s urine, urine can actually cause the nematocysts to release more venom (especially if it is dilute and similar in composition to freshwater)
- Don’t scrape, rub or shave a jellyfish sting