Pee or Not to Pee –
Treating a Bluebottle Sting

It’s that time of the year again when the pretty but painful bluebottle washes onto beaches around Australia. There are different ways to treat jellyfish stings, however, peeing isn’t one of them.

Bluebottles are the most common cause of jellyfish stings in Australia. Bluebottles (also known as Portugese Man-of-War jellyfish) vary in size, and the severity of the sting usually depends on the amount of contact the skin has had with the tentacle.

Although bluebottles appear to be single animals they’re actually colonial organisms known as siphonophores. Within the colony, specialised polyps make up the float, tentacles, digestive system, and gonozooids (for reproduction).

Bluebottles are active fishers, dragging their tentacles through the water in search of prey. The tentacles are armed with batteries of powerful stinging cells called nematocysts, which inject potent venom into prey, immobilising it more or less immediately. To us, it hurts, but to a fish, the violence of being impaled by thousands of tiny harpoons and immobilised with a cocktail of muscle toxins and neurotoxins can be powerfully destructive.

Symptoms

A bluebottle sting usually causes an immediate and severe pain, which generally fades over about an hour.

You can usually see where on the body the sting has occurred because there will be a red line where the tentacle has touched.

Sometimes this line has a ‘beaded’ appearance and is swollen and itchy.

Occasionally blisters can develop at the site of the sting, and very rarely the sting will later cause scarring.

It is very unlikely that someone who has been stung by a bluebottle will develop other symptoms such as abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting, although it is possible.

How to treat

Carefully remove any remaining tentacles by gently washing the area in seawater and carefully picking off any tentacles, taking care to avoid further stings, preferably by wearing gloves.

Washing the site of the sting with vinegar is NOT recommended for bluebottle stings.

Immerse the area where the bluebottle sting has occurred in hot water (45 degrees Celsius – no hotter than the rescuer can comfortably tolerate) for at least 20 minutes or, if this is not possible, direct a hot shower on the area for this length of time. The use of hot water is more effective at reducing the pain of bluebottle stings than the previously advised use of ice packs and cold water. However, if hot water is not available a cold pack may help.

If after this treatment there is continuing pain, itchiness, or blistering at the site of the sting, it would be best to visit a doctor who might prescribe a topical treatment such as a cortisone cream to reduce the inflammatory reaction.

In the tropical north of Australia, the first aid advice for jellyfish stings is slightly different as the box jellyfish and Irukandji jellyfish are found in these waters. Their stings can be life-threatening.

If you would like to learn how to manage bites and stings or any other type of first aid emergency, head over to our course page for further info.