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How You Treat Jellyfish Stings Could Mean Life or Death

Posted March 30, 2017, 11:07 AM HST
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A sting by an Australian box jellyfish can lead to death in as little as five minutes. Credit: Dr. Angel Yanagihara.

Do you know how to treat a jellyfish sting? According to researchers at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa (UHM), what you do after you get stung could potentially mean the difference between life and death.

Researchers took a look at whether the commonly recommended first aid responses lessen the severity of stings from two particularly dangerous jellyfish species: the Hawaiian box jelly and the Australian box jelly. Their findings, published in the journal Toxins, found that the most commonly recommended treatments actually worsen stings.

“Anyone who Googles ‘how to treat a jellyfish sting’ will encounter authoritative web articles claiming the best thing to do is rinse the area with seawater, scrape away any remaining tentacles, and then treat the sting with ice,” said Dr. Angel Yanagihara, lead author of the paper and assistant research professor at the UHM Pacific Biosciences Research Center (PBRC) and John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM). “We put those methods to the test in the lab, and found they actually make stings much, much worse.”

So what does a person do instead? Yanagihara, aided by Dr. Christie Wilcox, a postdoctoral fellow at JABSOM, found that rinsing with vinegar–which prevents the stingers present in tentacles from releasing venom–or simply plucking tentacles off using tweezers resulted in less severe stings. Interestingly, they found that applying ice can actually increase the venom’s impact, causing more than twice the damage.

Yanagihara and his team concocted their own product called “Sting No More” to deal with stings, which they say is the best form of treatment.


Box jellyfish are among the deadliest creatures found in the ocean. They are responsible for more annual deaths than sharks, and even mild stings cause severe pain and can leave scars.

“The more venom they inject, the more likely a victim is to suffer severe, even life-threatening symptoms,” said Yanagihara. “The increases in venom injection and activity we saw in our study from methods like scraping and applying ice could mean the difference between life and death in a serious box jelly sting.”



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