July 11, 2015
By Kathleen O’Brien
The Harvey Cedar Beach Patrol last week found a Portugese man-of-war on one of its beaches. (Photo courtesy of the Harvey Cedars Beach Patrol).
Given the recent sightings of Portuguese man-of-war along the Jersey Shore, here’s some advice on how to respond to a sting by one of them – or any other jellyfish.
The first step may seem obvious:
1. Get out of the water.
However, a freshly stung victim may not think of that, making it the most immediate task for any helper to accomplish, says Paul Mendofik, a first aid training specialist with the Red Cross.
That’s because the victim should be on dry land in the unlikely event that he or she has an allergic reaction to the sting. Have them sit down if possible too.
That leads to the next step:
2. Check for an allergic reaction: typically difficulty breathing, dizziness or heart problems. Another weird sign of an allergic reaction is profuse sweating, which might be hard to spot in someone who has just emerged from the water.
If you suspect a system-wide allergic reaction – as opposed to localized discomfort caused by the sting itself – call 911. “Respiratory distress or associated cardiac problems? That’s a 911 call, absolutely,” Mendofik said.
Once an allergic reaction is ruled out, you can proceed to treat the sting.
3. Bathe the stung area of flesh with ocean water. Fresh water will just make things worse, causing the stingers to swell and even burst, which can make them emit more toxin.
Some people advise bathing the area in vinegar, but while that applies to most types of jellyfish, it doesn’t apply to Portuguese men-of war. And when you or a loved one is hopping around on one leg howling in pain, it’s hardly the most opportune time to play marine biologist and try to identify your attacker.
So stick with ocean water – it works for all types.
That rumor about urinating on a sting? The first aid approach shown in the “Friends” episode called “The One With the Jelly Fish?” Total sitcom fodder with no scientific basis.
“No, you don’t have to pee on your friend’s leg. It’s an urban myth. Sea water is more hygienic,” said John Kulin, director of medicine for Urgent Care Now in Ocean County.
Now, the fun part:
4. Remove the stingers. In a perfect world, you would do this with a towel, or with rubber gloves on – in other words, something to make sure toxins from the stingers don’t get on the helper as well.
One handy tip is to dislodge the tiny stingers by scraping the skin with the edge of a credit card. “Most everybody has a credit card with them,” notes Kulin. You can also rub them off with a towel.
You can make this process easier by covering the area with either a baking soda poultice or shaving cream – both with stabilize the tentacles so there’s less chance they’ll break off with the stinger still embedded. Even though you may use shaving cream, don’t shave the stingers off with a razor blade.
5. But it still hurts! Yes, jellyfish stings are likely to remain painful for several hours. The best treatment is to cover the area with a warm, moist compress, said Kulin. Mendofik’s advice to first-aiders is to immerse the affected area in a hot bath.
If you can’t leave the beach, though, one alternative is to bring along one of those handwarmer packets sold in sporting stores. “Go online, and purchase a couple that you can keep in your beach bag,” Mendofik said.
6. Finally, Kulin recommends taking the same steps they’d take in his urgent-care facility: Apply a hydrocortisone cream and maybe take an antihistamine such as Benadryl to reduce discomfort.
In general, you don’t need to seek professional medical attention unless the victim appears to be having an allergic reaction, Kulin said.
The other caution is about the unknown: If you don’t know what stung you, and you don’t know how you’ll react, “start moving toward medical help,” Mendofik said.
He has a few other precautions for beachgoers:
– Have situational awareness. Pay attention to the details of any warning signs. Do they note the presence of jellyfish or other dangers? Simply being aware of what might happen helps your brain react if something actually does happen.
– Where are you? If you had to call 911, what would you give as your location? Take two seconds to make a mental note of how you’d describe your section of beach…near Milepost 12? North of the lifeguard station? Just south of the pier?
– If you’re one of those prepare-for-everything types, you might want to create a jellyfish ziplock bag with tweezers and handwarmers to take with you on beach outings.