Common jellyfish sting recommendations can make stings worse

A single sting from the Australian box jelly, Chironex fleckeri, can kill a human in less than 5 minutes. Photo by Angel Yanagihara/UHM

March 21 (UPI) — New research suggests many of the recommendations for treating jellyfish stings don’t work and can make matters worse.

“Anyone who Googles ‘how to treat a jellyfish sting’ will encounter authoritative web articles claiming the best thing to do is rinse the area with seawater, scrape away any remaining tentacles, and then treat the sting with ice,” lead researcher Angel Yanagihara, an assistant research professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s John A. Burns School of Medicine, said in a news release. “We put those methods to the test in the lab, and found they actually make stings much, much worse.”

Scientists designed a human tissue model for their experiments and subjected the model to stings from two box jelly species, the Hawaiian box jelly Alatina alata and the Australian box jelly Chironex fleckeri, the largest box jelly in the world.

Box jellies are more dangerous than sharks, killing dozens of swimmers every year and sending hundreds more to the hospital. Mistreating a sting is no joke.

Yanagihara and her colleagues tested how commonly recommended sting remedies — rinsing with seawater, scraping off tentacles and applying ice — routinely worsened sting conditions, causing tentacles to release more venom.

Scientists generally recommend against urinating on a jellyfish sting because it can cause tentacles to release more venom, making the sting even worse.

“Less than one percent of stinging cells on a tentacle actually fire when you’re first stung,” explained Christie Wilcox, a postdoctoral fellow at JABSOM. “So anything you do that moves the tentacles or adherent stinging cell capsules around has the potential to increase the amount of venom injected into you by many fold.”

Some sting treatment recommendations do work, however. Rinsing with vinegar prevented the stinging tentacles from releasing venom. Carefully plucking tentacles away using tweezers also improved conditions.

The researchers also say products available for treating stings — in the study, Sting No More Spray and Cream, developed by the Department of Defense for U.S. Special Operations Command combat divers, was tested — can be effective at preventing further injury.

“Box jellies are incredibly dangerous animals. The more venom they inject, the more likely a victim is to suffer severe, even life threatening symptoms,” said Yanagihara. “The increases in venom injection and activity we saw in our study from methods like scraping and applying ice could mean the difference between life and death in a serious box jelly sting.”

Researchers hope the results of their experiments — detailed in the journal Toxins — will inspire medical and government safety websites to offer more scientific recommendations for jellyfish stings.


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