Right now, my family and I live in Northern Illinois, far away from any risk of encountering jellyfish.  However, we are planning on moving to Florida in the next couple of years.  Because we will likely be spending some time at the beaches, it’s a good idea to know what to watch out for in order to avoid (if possible) and treat (if not) jellyfish stings.

As with any other potential health risk, the biggest factor is knowing your area.  There are seasonal jellyfish “blooms” in which the number of jellyfish increases dramatically in a given area.  These blooms (sometimes called “invasions”) can be made up of tens of thousands of individual jellyfish.

There are some great photos of various jellyfish that can be found around the Gulf Coast and up the Eastern Seaboard of the United States over at BeachHunter.net that you should take a look at.  Pay special attention to the photos of the Portuguese Man-o-war, because a sting by that bad boy can be life-threatening.

Most jellies that are found around the USA are not deadly, and their stings are painful but not dangerous.  Severe stings can cause breathing problems or tightening of the chest or airways.  If a sting victim starts showing those symptoms, or starts to feel weak, sick, or nauseous, call 911 right away.  Stings that come from a Man-o-war should be seen by a doctor, since they can be dangerous.

Although I have not seen any “live and in person” the pictures that I see of jellyfish washed up on beaches look like big piles of slime.  They are somewhat more elegant in the water, but the best way to interact with jellies is to STAY AWAY FROM THEM.  Even dead jellyfish can sting if you touch them.  If there are signs around the beach of jellies, especially if there has been rough weather, there can be pieces of jellyfish tentacles that have broken off from the main creatures and are floating free in the water or on the beach sand.  I would take the precaution of skipping the beach that day, if I saw a bunch of dead jellies.

There is one species of jellyfish that is extremely dangerous.  Fortunately, it doesn’t inhabit coastal American waters, but the “box jellyfish” are thought to have some of the most highly toxic venom in the world.  Box jellies are mostly found around Northern Australia and the Indian area of the Pacific Ocean.  They can be found as far East as Hawaii.

As already mentioned, the easiest way to prevent jellyfish stings is to leave them alone.  If you do get stung, though, there are some things that can be done to treat it.  First, try to remove as much of the stinging tentacle as you can by rinsing the area with sea water.  Don’t use fresh water, as this may cause more stinging to happen.  Then, douse the area with white vinegar.  This actually causes the stinging cells that line the tentacles to deactivate so that the ones that have not yet fired will not. Then, remove any remaining tentacle with gloved hands or by covering the area with a paste of baking soda and sea water.  When the paste has dried, scrape it off. Mayo Clinic says that over the counter skin creams such as calamine lotion can be used to relieve pain and itching, and that soaking in hot water may also help.

In some cases, the vinegar treatment is not enough, or the affected area is really large.  In really bad cases, emergency medical support is needed, including CPR, artificial respiration, and antivenom (in the case of a box jelly sting).

With a little knowledge and care, you can totally avoid the problem of jellyfish.  However, it’s always good to know what to do in the case of accidental contact.

Stay safe!

Mayo Clinic: Jellyfish stings