Around 30,000 bluebottle stings are reported every year along the east coast of Australia (and that’s just the reported stings)
Also known as the Portuguese Man-o-war (Physalia sp.), bluebottles cause painful stings and are found throughout Australian waters (and both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans).
If you or your child are stung, symptoms may include pain, welts, redness swelling, and blistering to the stung area, and less commonly headache, nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain and occasionally collapse.
How to treat a bluebottle sting
Here is the first aid specifically for bluebottle stings (not other jellyfish):
- Stay calm.
- Gently pick off any remaining tentacles – DON’T rub!
- Wash the stung area with copious amounts of SEAWATER (NOT freshwater) for at least 30 seconds.
- Place the stung area in HOT water (not hot enough to burn your child – be careful!) for up to 20 minutes. Remove, then if the area is still painful, repeat the hot water treatment.
You can repeat this cycle for up to 2 hours. Seek medical help if pain is not relieved. A cold pack may help with the pain until hot water is available.
Call an ambulance if the:
- person is having an allergic reaction to the sting
- person is having breathing difficulties or loss of consciousness
- sting is extensive ie; over a limb
- sting is to a sensitive area such as the genitals or eyes
- pain is uncontrollable
- sting is to the throat or inside the mouth or nose
- sting has wrapped around a body part (circumferential)
Don’t pee on it and NO vinegar
So… why not vinegar? You may have heard that vinegar is the recommended treatment for jellyfish stings – this is in fact the current recommended treatment for box jellyfish and ‘tropical’ jellyfish stings.
For bluebottle stings though, vinegar doesn’t help and MAY INCREASE the person’s pain.
Stinging cells on the tentacles of jellyfish are called nematocysts, and they essentially shoot venom into the skin, like tiny harpoons. Research shows that vinegar can PROMOTE nematocyst discharge in bluebottle stings.
The Australian Venom Research Unit says that the purpose of applying vinegar to jellyfish stings (in TROPICAL WATERS, not bluebottle stings) is to prevent the firing of undischarged nematocysts. Vinegar will not decrease pain, or diminish the effects of the venom.
And despite what happened in that Friends episode, don’t pee on a sting either. Instead, follow the steps above for the most effective and recommended treatment.
More research is being done in this area, so stay tuned for updates.
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Sarah Hunstead is a Paediatric Nurse and founder of CPR Kids. She is also the author of ‘A Life. A Finger. A Pea Up a Nose’ CPR Kids essential First Aid Guide for Babies and Children.