Although I have been working on Spineless for four years, I never really had a meaningful jellyfish sting. This was something that I felt weirdly ashamed of, especially when so many people I talk to about jellyfish tell me of their blistering run-ins and my daily Google newsfeed on jellyfish often brings me disturbing sting stories. How could I write authoritatively about stings having never had one? But this summer swimming in a huge bloom of nomadic jellies in Haifa, I was slashed by tentacles a couple times. It felt like slaps of hot oil. Lucky, the pain only lasted a couple hours. After a day, the marks were gone.
Given how common they are, it’s pretty amazing that there’s no medical consensus on how to treat jellyfish stings. In large part that’s because there are thousands of jellyfish species swimming in the seas, and each with its own complement of stinging cells and toxins. Despite the Friend’s episode where Joey does the unmentionable to Rachel after she’s stung, not all are disarmed by urine, though the hotness of the liquid does seem to degrade some toxins. Others seem to decay faster in cold water. Vinegar is sometimes reported to make the sting worse and sometimes better. It all depends on who did the stinging.
The Europeans are way out in front of us on this. A group called MedJellyRisk has developed different protocols for treating jellyfish stings depending on what type stings you. If you were stung by the mauve stinger, the sea nettle, or the one that got me, the nomadic jellyfish–or if you don’t know which kind got you–they say you should follow the general treatment scheme below:
DON’T douse with vinegar, hot water, alcohol, or ammonia (including urine)
DO use cold packs [UPDATE: New research indicates that hot water is a better treatment for stings. I know, it’s confusing. Goes to show how much more we need to learn about jellyfish.]
STEP 1: Wash carefully with sea water without rubbing.
STEP 2: If possible, apply a mixture of equal parts sea water and baking soda for two minutes to block the firing of any stinging cells left on the skin.
STEP 3: Remove residual tentacles and the baking soda with the edge of a plastic credit card
STEP 4: Apply a cold pack (a plastic bag with ice, or even a cold soda can wrapped in a piece of fabric or a shirt) for 5-15 minutes [UPDATE: SEE ABOVE]
STEP 5: Evaluate the persistence of pain. Reapply the cold pack for another 5-10 minutes.
STEP 6: If the pain persists, consult the appropriate doctor or pharmacist and ask for the application of topical analgesic/anti-inflammatory creme (3-4% lidocaine and hydrocortisone).
If you were stung by a Portuguese man o’ war, which can become numerous on the Texas coast, then vinegar does work. Modify Step 2 to include a vinegar rinse. Also, don’t use cold compresses. Use hot ones.
For the fearsome box jellies, Med Jelly Risk says don’t use cold compresses, but instead douse your wound in hot water. Another solution is to always travel to the beach with the formulation Sting No More, invented by Diana Nyad’s jellyfish advisor, Angel Yanigahara and now available for purchase. It comes in convenient foil packets that can be tossed in your beach bag with your sunscreen.
The trouble is much of the time, you might not know what kind of jellyfish stung you. I figure it’s better to get out in front of the sting. Before I swam with the giant bloom of jellies, I slathered myself with SafeSea, a sunblock/sting block that seemed to really take the edge off. Compared to my dive partner, I emerged fairly unscathed.
Over the years, I have contemplated many jellyfish metaphors and similes. Jellyfish are like angels; they are like monsters. They are like swimming heartbeats. They are living water in the currents of the sea. Now, here’s another, perhaps more relevant than all the other more poetic riffs. When you go to the beach, jellyfish are like the sun: part of the experience that requires some forethought–or else you might get badly burned.
UPDATE: Since I wrote this blog, Angel Yanigahara published a new paper showing that vinegar inhibits the discharge of box jelly stinging cells.