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Jellyfish sting

Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Roger HendersonReviewed on 29.04.2024 | 4 minutes read

Jellyfish are common especially in spring-summer in the UK. The majority of jellyfish either have no sting or a mild to moderate sting, but those in UK waters do not have life-threatening toxins in their sting. The sting from a jellyfish comes from its tentacles and you may be stung if you touch or swim by them. This will bring on a painful, burning or stinging sensation and redness or raised red areas of skin.

Even when a jellyfish is washed up on the beach it still could sting you so it’s best to avoid touching or handling them. Wearing a wetsuit and wetsuit shoes can help lessen any exposed skin that could be stung. Jellyfish tend to float about in groups so be aware and move away if you can when you see one.

In the UK the lion’s mane jellyfish has the most painful sting. It's sometimes found on the coasts of north Wales or Scotland, and distinctive by its large size and thick brown or red frilly tentacles.

The infamous Portuguese man o’war is also large and has a light purple rounded sac. It floats on the water with long tentacles. Despite appearances, technically a species closely related to, but not classified as, a jellyfish, and can give a nasty sting or even debilitate a swimmer. You may also get stomach ache, diarrhoea and vomiting.

What to do with a jellyfish sting?

Most jellyfish stings do not need medical attention and can be helped with simple measures, with the exception of a bluebottle jellyfish sting.

Check that there are no remaining parts of jellyfish on your skin as soon as possible - you could use something like a credit card to run across the skin to avoid touching the skin with your hands - and rinse thoroughly with sea or saltwater. Try to avoid rubbing the area once you have been stung.

Next, soak it in water that is as hot as you can manage for around half an hour. You can take pain relief such as paracetamol and an antihistamine to help with any rash or raised red skin. Your pharmacist can help advise you on the right pain relief and antihistamines for you.

You may have heard that weeing on a jellyfish sting can help, and it was actually popularised by an episode of the TV show ‘Friends’. Advice is that peeing on stings is not recommended, and can make the sting worse. The best general treatment is to cover stings with lots of vinegar and then put the sting in warm/hot water if it is still causing a lot of pain.

If you would like to know about other bites and stings, our doctors have written an article about them.

Healthwords pharmacists' top tips

If the pain associated with a Jellyfish sting is particularly bothersome, in addition to the initial measures to clear the area that is stung, you could try using an anaesthetic cream such as Lanacane, which numbs the area.

An antihistamine may reduce any redness, itching or raised bumps around the area. Piriton (containing chlorphenamine) is particularly good for bringing down skin reactions, but it can cause a bit of drowsiness compared to others, so care must be taken to avoid any further swimming if affected. Alternatively, a longer-acting, non-drowsy antihistamine such as those containing Loratadine or Cetirizine can be used since they are less likely to cause drowsiness.

A mild steroid cream like hydrocortisone or an antistamine cream such as Anthisan, can also be used alongside the above if necessary to bring down red bumps and inflammation.

Am I fit for work?

If you feel able to do your job, you're fit for work after a jellyfish sting.

When should I see my doctor about jellyfish stings?

You should call 111, or go to an urgent care centre if you have:

  • multiple stings around the face or genital area
  • if the stings are getting more and more painful
  • you have multiple stings from a lion's mane jellyfish or Portuguese man o’war, or a blue bottle jellyfish sting

You should call 999 if you think someone is having an allergic reaction to a jellyfish sting and they're experiencing lip, tongue or facial swelling, shortness of breath, pain in the chest, vomiting or feeling faint.

The doctor will initially do a full assessment, including checking your breathing, blood pressure and pulse rate. They will assess the areas you have been stung and may give you a painkiller and consider treatment for your symptoms.

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Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Roger Henderson
Reviewed on 29.04.2024
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