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bluebottle jellyfish floating in ocean

bluebottle jellyfish floating in ocean
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Sea creature bites and stings

It can be difficult to know if a bite or sting from a sea creature is dangerous or not. This article explains the best first aid treatment depending on the creature involved.

It’s important to be aware that bites and stings can cause a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) in some people. Learn more about first aid treatment for severe allergic reactions in the ‘anaphylaxis’ section below.

Box jellyfish and other tropical stingers

Tropical stingers (jellyfish) live in waters around Australia’s coastline north of Bundaberg in Queensland through to Geraldton in Western Australia. The most dangerous are the box jellyfish and Irukandji. The stinger season generally runs from November to March.

To treat a sting, call triple zero (000) for an ambulance and pour vinegar over the tentacles on the person’s skin to deactivate the sting. You may need to provide emergency assistance including cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Keep the person calm.

Never substitute vinegar with methylated spirits or alcohol because they will make the sting worse.

If you are in tropical waters and you can’t clearly identify the cause of the jellyfish sting, then treat the sting with vinegar and seek medical assistance just to be safe.

Stonefish

Stonefish live all around the Australian coastline. They look like rocks and actually live among rocks on coral reefs. They can also be found sleeping in the mud or sand.

The stonefish’s back is lined with spines that release a venomous toxin. This makes it very dangerous.

Call triple zero (000) for an ambulance and soak the affected area in hot water (no hotter than can be easily tolerated) to relieve the pain. In fact, the person may need hospital treatment to further relieve their pain and to be given stonefish antivenom.

To protect yourself from stonefish stings, wear thick-soled shoes and shuffle your feet when you walk in the shallows. Also, don't pick up rocks on reefs – they could be stonefish.

Blue-ringed octopus, sea snake and coneshell bites and stings

Bites and stings from the blue-ringed octopus, sea snakes and coneshells are very dangerous.

Provide emergency care including cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) if needed. Call triple zero (000) for an ambulance.

Apply a pressure immobilisation bandage and keep the person calm and as still as possible until medical help arrives.

Non-tropical stingers (jellyfish)

Non-tropical stingers live in waters all around Australia’s coastline, but are more generally found south of Bundaberg in Queensland and south of Geraldton in Western Australia.

To treat a sting, wash any remaining tentacles off the skin with seawater or pick them off the skin. Apply a cold pack to the affected area for about 10 minutes or until the pain is relieved. Seek further medical attention if the person’s condition gets worse.

Check your symptoms with healthdirect’s Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.

Bluebottle stings

Bluebottle stings are the most common jellyfish stings in Australia.

If stung wash any remaining tentacles off the skin with seawater, or carefully pick them off the skin (wearing gloves if possible).

Vinegar is no longer the recommended treatment for a bluebottle sting. Instead, immerse the person’s sting in hot water (no hotter than can be easily tolerated) for at least 20 minutes. You can even run a hot shower over the affected area if that’s easier.

If you can’t access hot water, apply an ice pack or cold water to the affected area.

Seek medical attention if the person develops further symptoms such as abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, or if there is continuing pain, itchiness or blistering at the site.

Never rub sand or pour soft drink over any jellyfish sting, or urinate on the stung area.

Check your symptoms with healthdirect’s Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.

Fish stings injuries

There are numerous other venomous or spiny fish, such as red rock cod in New South Wales, and soldier fish and cobblers in southern Australia. Most of these cause injuries when they are handled, for example by fishermen.

They cause immediate severe pain that lasts for up to an hour with minimal other effects. There are a number of things you can do to help manage pain from fish sting injuries:

  • any pieces of spine should be removed
  • for pain relief immerse affected area in water (or shower) as hot as patient can tolerate (45°C) until resolution of pain, or for at least 90 minutes. The temperature must be tested with an unaffected limb first
  • painkillers can be used to treat the pain.

Sea urchin injuries

Most sea urchin injuries are from non-venomous spines and the main problem is removal of broken-off spines. Venomous spines are less common but cause more intensely painful puncture wounds.

There are a number of things you can do to help manage pain from sea urchin injuries:

  • remove spines close to the surface
  • pain relief – immerse affected area in water (or shower) as hot as patient can tolerate (45°C) until resolution of pain, or for at least 90 minutes. The temperature must be tested with an unaffected limb first
  • painkillers can be used to treat the pain.

Check your symptoms with healthdirect’s Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.

Sponge injuries

Sponge contact reactions are uncommon and may be difficult to diagnose if they are delayed.

Initially there may only be a mild sensation with localised itchiness and stinging developing after minutes to hour. In some cases this sensation increases and can cause intense symptoms for two to three days.

No specific treatment has been recommended except washing the sting site. The effects resolve over days to weeks irrespective of treatment. Painkillers can be used to manage the pain.

Check your symptoms with healthdirect’s Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)

Read these articles for an overview of:

For printable charts, see St John Ambulance Australia’s first aid resuscitation procedures (DRSABCD) poster, as well as their quick guide to first aid management of bites and stings.

Pressure immobilisation bandage

A pressure immobilisation bandage is recommended for anyone stung by a sea creature.

This involves firmly bandaging the area of the body involved, such as the arm or leg, and keeping the person calm and still until medical help arrives. If possible, mark the site of the bite on the bandage with a pen.

A guide to pressure immobilisation bandages can be found on the Australian Venom Research Unit (AVRU) website.

Anaphylactic shock

Occasionally some people have a severe allergic reaction to being stung.

In cases of severe allergic reaction, the whole body can react within minutes to the bite or sting which can lead to anaphylactic shock. Anaphylactic shock is very serious and can be fatal.

Symptoms of anaphylactic shock may include:

  • swelling of the mouth, throat or tongue
  • difficulty swallowing
  • difficulty breathing or shortness of breath or wheezing
  • difficulty talking
  • a rash that may appear anywhere on the body
  • itching – usually around your eyes, ears, lips,throat or roof of the mouth
  • flushing (feeling hot and red)
  • stomach cramps, feeling or being sick
  • feeling weak
  • collapsing or falling unconscious.

Call triple zero (000) for an ambulance. If the person has a 'personal action plan' to manage a known severe allergy, they may need assistance to follow their plan. This may include administering adrenaline to the person via an autoinjector (such as an Epipen®) if one is available.

The Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy recommends that for a severe allergic reaction adrenaline is the initial treatment. For further information, visit the Choosing Wisely Australia website.

The St John Ambulance Australia first aid fact sheet for bites and stings can be found on their website. For more information on anaphylaxis, including setting up a personal action plan, go to www.allergy.org.au.

People with diagnosed allergies should avoid all trigger agents and confirmed allergens and have a readily accessible anaphylaxis action plan and medical alert device It is wise to ensure your friends and family know how to follow your anaphylaxis action plan too in case you need help.

How to prevent bites and stings

To protect you from marine stingers:

  • swim at patrolled beaches between the red and yellow flags and inside stinger nets if they’re available
  • don’t enter the water when the beaches are closed
  • wear a full-body lycra suit for extra protection (particularly from tropical stingers during stinger season)
  • don’t touch marine stingers if they are on the beach – they can still sting you
  • enter the water slowly to give marine stingers time to swim away
  • ask a lifeguard for help or advice if needed.

More information on marine stingers can be found on the Marine Stingers website.

Should I do a first aid course?

Knowing what to do in an emergency can save a life, so it’s a very good idea to do a first aid course.

You can book a first aid course through St John Ambulance Australia’s website or call them at 1300 360 455. You will need to pay a fee to do a course.

Not sure what to do next?

If you are still concerned about your bite or sting from a sea creature, why not use healthdirect’s online Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.

The Symptom Checker guides you to the next appropriate healthcare steps, whether it’s self care, talking to a health professional, going to a hospital or calling triple zero (000).

Last reviewed: July 2015

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