Post 104: Spotlight on Jellyfish Stings

A continuation from Post 102’s discussion with part-time HB lifeguard.

During my discussion with student/part-time lifeguard about using very hot water for stingray attacks (Post 102), we briefly talked about jellyfish stings. I remember hearing in January a rash of jellyfish attacks on our beaches – maybe because so many people were out there during our unusually warm (and dry) winter so far.

Forget baking soda and urine – they don’t work! Vinegar only works “sometimes.”

San Diego County EMS just changed their protocol on jellyfish stings on July 1, 2013:

As of July 1, lifeguards countywide are supposed to attend to jellyfish stings with hot water or saltwater, according to officials from the San Diego County Emergency Medical Services. Not everyone is a fan of the policy change; some residents argue that vinegar remains the best remedy for easing the hurt of a jellyfish encounter. However, a body of new evidence says otherwise, said Dr. Bruce Haynes, medical director of county EMS.

I saw a good article on on how to treat a jellyfish sting, so I’ll end the post on that note:

Question: How do I treat a jellyfish sting?timthumb

Answer: If you know the victim is allergic to insect stings, seek medical attention immediately. People who are allergic to bees and wasps may experience a dangerous allergic reaction to a jellyfish sting. Otherwise, act quickly and calmly to remove the tentacles, stop the stinging, and deactivate any toxin. Here is where people get confused, because the best steps to take depend on what type of animal caused the sting. Here’s a good basic strategy, especially if you don’t know what caused the sting:

  1. Get out of the water. It’s easier to deal with the sting and it takes drowning out of the equation.
  2. Rinse the affected area with sea water. Do not use fresh water! Fresh water will cause any stinging cells that haven’t fired (called nematocysts) to do so and release their venom, possibly worsening the situation. Do not rub sand on the area (same reason).
  3. If you see any tentacles, carefully lift them off the skin and remove them with a stick, shell, credit card, or towel (just not your bare hand). They will stick to swimwear, so use caution touching clothing.
  4. Keep an eye on the victim. If you see any signs of an allergic reaction, call 911 immediately. Symptoms could include difficulty breathing, nausea, or dizziness. Some redness and swelling is normal, but if it spreads outward from the sting or if you see hives on other parts of the body, that could indicate an allergic response. If you suspect a reaction, do not hesitate to seek medical attention!
  5. Now… if you are sure the sting is from a jellyfish and not a Portuguese Man of War (shown below, the Man of War is not a true jellyfish) or any other animal, you can use chemistry to your advantage to inactivate the toxin, which is a protein. (Technically the venom tends to be a mixture of polypeptides and proteins including catecholamines, histamine, hyaluronidase, fibrolysins, kinins, phospholipases, and assorted toxins). How do you inactivate proteins? You can change the temperature or acidity by applying heat or an acid or base, such as vinegar or baking soda or diluted ammonia, or even an enzyme, such as the papain found in papaya and meat tenderizer. However, chemicals may cause the stinging cells to fire, which is bad news for someone allergic to jellyfish toxin or anyone stung by a Portuguese Man of War. If you do not know what caused the sting or if you suspect it is from a Man of War, do not apply fresh water or any chemical. Your best course of action is to apply heat to the affected area, since it penetrates the skin and inactivates the toxin without causing more venom to be injected. Also, heat quickly helps alleviate the pain of the sting. Hot seawater is great, but if you don’t have that handy, use any warmed object.
  6. Some people carry aloe vera gel, Benadryl cream, or hydrocortisone cream. I’m not sure how effective the aloe is, but Benadryl is an antihistamine, which may help limit an allergic response to the sting. Hydrocortisone can help reduce inflammation. If you seek medical attention and used Benadryl or hydrocortisone, be sure to alert the medical professionals. Acetaminophenaspirin, or ibuprofen commonly are used to relieve pain.




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