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Jellyfish First Aid

Take a guess how many people visit the beach (aka the shore) each year in the United States? The 2012 U.S Census Bureau's Statistical Abstract of the United States says over 58 million people. What's one of the most common injuries at the beach (besides alcohol induced injuries)? Jellyfish stings. Jellyfish are one of the more common animal stings needing basic first aid. What are the first aid basics can you provide after getting stung by a jellyfish?  

That's a Lot of Jelly!

There are at least 100 species of jellyfish and some are known to be very dangerous. Jellyfish have nematocysts or sharp, coiled tubes surrounded by venom (think of a harpoon). Some of these nematocysts, or harpoons, can be so strong they will cut through surgical gloves (ouch!). Australia has the most deadly jellyfish (Box Jellyfish). Who would ever want to live in Australia? Right?

Symptoms of Jellyfish Stings

You may have been stung by a jellyfish if you have a localized, persist, superficial pain and itching. Sometimes there can even be blistering around the sting site. Systemic reactions, though not as common, may include:

  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Feeling Tired
  • Headaches
  • Heart Dysrhythmias
  • Anaphylactic reactions
  • Respiratory failure (occurs quickly)

Irukandji Syndrome

Don't freak out but in rare cases any Jellyfish sting (not just jellyfish in Australia) can lead to Irukandji Syndrome. This syndrome's signs and symptoms include

  • Severe body wide reactions within 30 minutes
  • Severe head and limb pain
  • Fast heartbeat & high blood pressure
  • Muscle spasms in back and stomach
  • Bleeding in the brain

Jellyfish Sting Treatment

In general there is no standard treatment approach to jellyfish stings.


  • ​Pee on your friend (urine will not help)
  • Rub the area - not all of the little harpoons (aka nematocysts) may have burst
  • Use alcohol
  • Use sand


  • ​Get out of the water
  • Confirm ABCs are working correctly – Airway, Breathing, Circulation
  • Deactivate the unfired nematocysts (harpoons) by soaking the sting area with household vinegar (4-6% acetic acid) for at least 30 seconds or use a baking soda slurry
  • Use a blunt object to carefully scrap off the inactivated harpoons but make sure to put on thick gloves so you don't get stuck again!

Treating Jellyfish Sting Pain

In general hot or cold treatments may help:

  • Some victims indicate a 30 minute hot water shower (110 F or 43 C, or as hot as the victim can tolerate)
  • Some victims say hot compresses can help, if applied early
  • Sometimes pain medications are needed for larger stings
  • Over the counter anti-histamines (like Benadryl) may be worth taking no matter what size the sting 

Jellyfish First Aid Summary

Perhaps the best thing to do (besides the basic treatments above) is to anticipate problems. Allergic reactions, while rare, do occur. Failure to plan is planning to fail so at least know where the closest emergency room is and write down the emergency phone number (if outside the US). Most stings can be treated on the scene and don't need to be taken to an emergency department.

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