Jellyfish, Sea Urchins, and Coral: What to Do If You’re Stung at the Beach

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If you’re planning on catching some waves this summer, be on the lookout for these common dangers lurking underwater. (Photo: Stocksy/Caine Delacy)

When a stingray killed beloved “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin, we learned that the dangers lurking in oceans extend beyond sharks. And when box jellyfish stings in 2011 caused long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad to have to put her Cuba-Florida swim goals on hold (she finally completed the historic swim on her fifth try in 2013), we saw just how menacing the sea creature could be.

You hopefully won’t encounter such life-or-death situations on your vacation this summer. But marine environments are still ripe with sea life that can cause skin reactions or necessitate medical care (venomous stings are no joke!) — particularly when children explore sandy beaches and splash in saltwater, or when surfers, snorkelers, and scuba divers encounter wildlife. 

Jellyfish

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Jellyfish stings can cause muscle pain and a burning sensation. (Photo: Flickr/William Warby)

Experts say the vast majority of stings at the beach are caused by accidentally stepping on invertebrate animals like jellyfish on the shore, or by accidentally brushing against them while in the water. An intense burning sensation localized to one area of the skin is the main sign you’ve been stung, and itching, swelling, and red, brown, or purplish tracks on skin where venom made contact may also be present.

You can usually get symptoms under control with little impact on your vacation by taking immediate action. “Rinse the area right away with sea water or vinegar, and use tweezers to remove any visible tentacles in the skin,” advises Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital Department of Dermatology. “Do NOT rub or pull tentacles with your fingers or clean skin with fresh water – both can actually cause more of the toxins to be released into skin,” he adds. Wrapped ice can be applied to help alleviate pain and swelling.

Related: Will Peeing on a Jellyfish Sting Really Relieve the Pain?

When it comes to jellyfish, certain kinds emit stings far more potent than others. The Portuguese man-of-war (though not technically a jellyfish, but it’s jellyfish-like) has extra-powerful nematocysts, which is the name for the barbed or venomous coiled thread ejected from tentacles in a sting. Its sting can even penetrate rubber wet suits. If it washes ashore, the nematocysts can still fire if the tentacle is stepped on or touched, even if it’s dead. The sting can cause severe muscle pain, intense burning, nausea, and weakness; seek medical attention if you experience any of these symptoms.

Coral

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Calcium carbonate from the coral skeleton can cause eczema-like reactions in the skin. (Photo: Flickr/Bruce Tuten)

The brilliantly beautiful beds of hard corals that many associate with Australia’s Great Barrier Reef are most often encountered by scuba divers, and are notorious for causing skin reactions if touched. Corals not only contain stinging nematocysts, but calcium carbonate from the skeleton can easily become embedded in skin, causing a recurring eczema-like reaction and bacterial infection. If this happens to you, “immediately apply first-aid ointment and then visit your doctor for prescription antibiotics – you may also need a tetanus booster shot or surgical removal of the coral,” says Zeichner.

Sea Urchins

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Stepping on these creatures can be painful. (Photo: Flickr/Paul Blair)

The spiked hedgehog-like creatures known as sea urchins are commonly stepped on, and surfers may kick into them when swimming out to catch a wave. It’s the sea urchin’s long spines that are problematic, since they easily break off and can embed in skin much like the skeleton of hard corals. “Carefully inspect the skin and try to remove any visible spines with a tweezer. If you can’t get it all, it may have to be surgically removed by a doctor,” says Zeichner. 

Cone Shells

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Be careful of the tiny “spear” in cone shells. (Photo: Flickr/Ian Robertson)

Elegantly patterned cone shells often catch the eye of seashell gatherers who don’t realize they’re actually highly venomous creatures; each cone contains a tiny spear called a radula that stings from the open side of the shell. Experts say one shell has enough toxin to kill 12 people, though it’s fortunately not as easy to get stung as by other wildlife (you have to hold the shell upside down with your fingers close enough to the radula to get stung). Pain, swelling, redness, and muscle paralysis are all signs you’ve been hit. There is no way to treat a cone shell sting except for applying local pressure to the area and minimizing movement to prevent the toxin from spreading, says Zeichner. Seek medical help if you think you’ve been stung.

Related: Yuck! Your Favorite Swim Spot Is a Lot Grosser Than You Realize

Stingrays

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If you’re stung by a stingray, wash the area and apply pressure to minimize bleeding. (Photo: Flickr/George)

Perhaps the most dramatic sting comes from stingrays, which usually occurs when a person accidentally steps on one. The ray responds by quickly striking with a tail that contains a venomous barb, which pierces skin to cause a puncture wound. While stings are not usually deadly, they’re still an urgent matter. Quickly wash the area in salt water and apply pressure to minimize bleeding. “The stingray’s venom can affect your heart and nervous system, so it’s important to get to an emergency room as soon as possible if you think you’ve been stung by one,” warns Zeichner.

Experts say Irwin’s deadly brush with a stingray was an unusual event. It happened when he was filming a large, eight-foot sting ray in just a few feet of water, and the fish uncharacteristically attacked him as though defending itself from a shark; it spun around and struck several hundred times with its tail spine in just a matter of seconds. One of the punctures pierced Irwin’s heart, which proved to be the fatal blow. Marine experts say it was likely that the stingray suddenly felt “boxed in” by the filming equipment and crew and defensively panicked.

“While some accidents are unavoidable, always be cautious and look before you leap,” advises Zeichner. When snorkeling or scuba diving, pay attention to your guide’s directions and don’t wander off on your own unless you’re a very experienced and knowledgeable diver. Wear a wet suit for these aquatic activities in addition to surfing, and avoid drinking alcohol before exploring the sea since it can impair judgment, adds Zeichner.

It’s always smart to educate yourself on what marine life exists in the area you’re in, so that you’re not taken by surprise. Teach children to only look at — and not touch — marine animals, including anything that washes up on shore. Also show children what jellyfish look like, and make sure they know the dangers of coming in contact with one, since this is the most common sting beachgoers encounter. And most importantly, don’t forget to practice what you preach.

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