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Three children running into the ocean

How to Treat and Prevent Jellyfish Stings

By Dr. Erin Rafferty, Chesapeake Pediatrics

During the summer months, jellyfish are commonly found in the coastal waters throughout Hampton Roads. Although jellyfish are slow swimmers and not aggressive by nature, they often sting people who accidentally bump into them. Jellyfish stings can be painful, but most are not emergencies. If your child is stung, try to remain calm and reassure your child that they will be okay.

Despite their name, jellyfish are not technically a fish. They are invertebrate animals that do not have a backbone. The species of jellyfish most often responsible for stings to local swimmers is called the sea nettle. Jellyfish tentacles can extend several feet and contain thousands of stingers. When touched, a jellyfish’s stingers pierce a person’s skin and release venom that often causes painful symptoms.

Be careful around jellyfish that you find on the beach because they can still sting. Even a dying jellyfish outside of the water or a detached tentacle floating in the water can release venom. Steer clear of jellyfish when you can, no matter where you find them.

Follow these tips for stings:

  • To treat a jellyfish sting, rinse the affected skin with sea water. Do not pour fresh water over the area or use human urine.
  • Do not apply pressure bandages, meat tenderizer, alcohol, ethanol, or ammonia to the affected area.
  • Don’t touch the area with your bare hands.
  • If your child was stung by a sea nettle jellyfish, do not use vinegar to rinse the affected area. Instead, try rinsing with baking soda and sea water to stop the stinging.
  • After rinsing, try to remove the remaining stingers using tweezers or scrape them off with the edge of a credit card. Wear gloves if you have them to avoid getting stings on your hands.
  • Use over-the-counter pain relievers. An anti-itch cream or an antihistamine may alleviate itching.

If your child is experiencing symptoms of a severe allergic reaction such as trouble breathing or swallowing or they have had a severe allergic reaction in the past, call 911 immediately. If blisters appear, severe pain lasts for more than two hours, or the redness and rash remain for more than two weeks, call your CHKD pediatrician. If you have any questions, contact Poison Control at (800) 222-1222.

Fortunately, many people can take steps to avoid jellyfish stings when swimming by checking with local health departments and lifeguards about water conditions. If jellyfish have been reported in the water, do not go swimming.

Other preventive measures include:

  • Use protective lotions. Some clinical evidence shows that anti-jellyfish sting protective lotions may result in fewer stings after exposure to jellyfish tentacles. It may be especially helpful to people at high risk of stings, such as children or people with existing medical conditions.
  • Wear a protective suit. When swimming in areas where jellyfish stings are possible, wear a wet suit or other protective clothing. Diving stores sell protective "skin suits" or "stinger suits" made of thin, high-tech fabric. Consider protective footwear as stings can also occur while wading in shallow water.

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About CHKD Medical Group

About CHKD Medical  Group Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters has been the region’s most trusted name in pediatric care for more than 50 years. As members of CHKD Health System, our pediatricians work closely with CHKD’s full range of pediatric specialists and surgeons. They also share a commitment to quality, excellence and child-centered care. With 18 practices in 29 locations throughout the region, a CHKD pediatrician is never far.