Health Encyclopedia

 

 

Marine Stings and Scrapes

Topic Overview

Walking on a beach or swimming in the ocean can be fun and relaxing. But just like any other activities, accidents can happen. This topic will help you determine the next steps to take if you have a jellyfish or Portuguese man-of-war sting, seabather's eruption, or a coral scrape.

Stings

Jellyfish and Portuguese man-of-wars are members of a large group of venomous marine animals that also includes fire coral and sea anemones. They are present all over the world and cause injury and illness through the release of venom when their tentacles come in contact with skin (stinging). Tentacles are long, slender, flexible growths found on jellyfish, Portuguese man-of-wars, squid, and octopuses. Tentacles are used for grasping, feeling, moving, and killing prey by stinging. While the sting of a jellyfish or Portuguese man-of-war can cause severe illness and extreme pain, documented deaths are rare.

Jellyfish are often present in coastal waters, having been brought ashore by winds or ocean currents. They are most common in warm ocean waters, especially along the Atlantic coast of the United States. Stings result from contact with the tentacles, which trail from the jellyfish's see-through body. Jellyfish swimming in the water are often hard to see. Beached jellyfish, which may look like the cellophane wrapper from a cigarette pack, can sting if touched.

Jellyfish stings cause immediate, intense pain and burning that can last for several hours. Raised, red welts develop along the site of the sting, which may look like you have been hit with a whip. The welts may last for 1 to 2 weeks, and itchy skin rashes may appear 1 to 4 weeks after the sting. Fortunately, most jellyfish stings are not severe. Extensive stings, allergic reactions, or severe reactions are not common but do occur. To avoid the risk of drowning, swimmers should get out of the water as soon as they realize they have been stung.

The box jellyfish, which is found in the Indian Ocean and South Pacific, can cause a fatal reaction. It is the only jellyfish for which a specific antidote (antivenin) exists. If you get this antivenin, it may save your life.

Seabather's eruption is a rash that develops from the stings of jellyfish or sea anemone larvae. The rash can be quite itchy and annoying, but it usually goes away without medical treatment in 10 to 14 days.

Portuguese man-of-wars (hydrozoans) live in warm seas throughout the world but are most common in the tropical and subtropical regions of the Pacific and Indian oceans and in the Gulf Stream of the North Atlantic Ocean. They float on the surface of the water with their long, stinging tentacles trailing in the water below. Detached tentacles that wash up on the beach may remain dangerous for months.

Portuguese man-of-war stings produce immediate burning pain and redness where the tentacles touched the skin. The affected area develops a red line with small white lesions. In severe cases, blisters and welts that look like a string of beads may appear. Stings that involve the eye may cause pain, swelling, excessive tears, blurred vision, or increased sensitivity to light. Severe reactions are most likely to occur in children and small adults. Severe toxic reactions to the venom can also occur.

Stingrays are members of the shark family. They have sharp spines in their tails that can cause cuts or puncture wounds. The spines also have venom. Stingrays do not bite but can suck with their mouths and leave a bruise.

Coral scrapes

Coral scrapes and cuts are common injuries that may occur when you walk on a beach or swim, snorkel, or dive in warm water. Coral polyps, the soft living material that covers the surface of coral, can be easily torn away from the rigid and abrasive structure underneath if you touch, bump, or fall on coral. A skin infection may develop when small pieces of coral, other debris, and bacteria get inside the wound. Scrapes and cuts from sharp-edged coral may take weeks or even months to heal.

Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.

Check Your Symptoms

Did you get a sting or scrape while swimming in the ocean or walking on the beach?
This could include a sting from a marine creature, such as a jellyfish or Portuguese man-of-war, or a coral scrape.
Yes
Marine sting or scrape
No
Marine sting or scrape
How old are you?
Less than 12 years
Less than 12 years
12 years or older
12 years or older
Are you male or female?
Male
Male
Female
Female
Could you be having a severe allergic reaction?
This is more likely if you have had a bad reaction to something in the past.
Yes
Possible severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis)
No
Possible severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis)
Do you have symptoms of shock?
Yes
Symptoms of shock
No
Symptoms of shock
Are you having trouble breathing (more than a stuffy nose)?
Yes
Difficulty breathing more than a stuffy nose
No
Difficulty breathing more than a stuffy nose
Have you had a seizure?
Yes
Seizure
No
Seizure
Have you lost the ability to move part of your body?
Yes
Loss of movement in part of body
No
Loss of movement in part of body
Have you been stung in the eye?
Yes
Stung in eye
No
Stung in eye
Are you having eye or vision problems?
Yes
Eye or vision problems
No
Eye or vision problems
Is there any pain?
Yes
Pain
No
Pain
How bad is the pain on a scale of 0 to 10, if 0 is no pain and 10 is the worst pain you can imagine?
8 to 10: Severe pain
Severe pain
5 to 7: Moderate pain
Moderate pain
1 to 4: Mild pain
Mild pain
Has the pain lasted for more than 8 hours?
Yes
Pain for more than 8 hours
No
Pain for more than 8 hours
Is the pain getting worse?
Yes
Pain is getting worse
No
Pain is getting worse
Do you feel very sleepy or weak all over, or are you having trouble standing or walking?
Yes
Very sleepy or weak all over or having trouble standing or walking
No
Very sleepy or weak all over or having trouble standing or walking
Do you have severe, rapid swelling near the wound?
Yes
Severe, rapid swelling near the wound
No
Severe, rapid swelling near the wound
Do you think you may have a fever?
Yes
Possible fever
No
Possible fever
Are you having other symptoms of a serious reaction to a sting?
These could include symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, headache, dizziness, body aches, or muscle spasms.
Yes
Symptoms of serious reaction to jellyfish or Portuguese man-of-war sting
No
Symptoms of serious reaction to jellyfish or Portuguese man-of-war sting
Are there any symptoms of infection?
Yes
Symptoms of infection
No
Symptoms of infection
Are there red streaks leading away from the area or pus draining from it?
Yes
Red streaks or pus
No
Red streaks or pus
Do you have diabetes, a weakened immune system, peripheral arterial disease, or any surgical hardware in the area?
"Hardware" includes things like artificial joints, plates or screws, catheters, and medicine pumps.
Yes
Diabetes, immune problems, peripheral arterial disease, or surgical hardware in affected area
No
Diabetes, immune problems, peripheral arterial disease, or surgical hardware in affected area
Do you have an itchy rash?
Yes
Itchy rash
No
Itchy rash
Is the itching severe?
Severe means that you are scratching so hard that your skin is cut or bleeding.
Yes
Severe itching
No
Severe itching
Has the itching interfered with sleeping or normal activities for more than 2 days?
Yes
Itching has disrupted sleep or normal activities for more than 2 days
No
Itching has disrupted sleep or normal activities for more than 2 days
Do you think you may need a tetanus shot?
Yes
May need tetanus shot
No
May need tetanus shot
Have you had symptoms for more than a week after the sting or scrape?
Yes
Symptoms for more than 1 week after sting or scrape
No
Symptoms for more than 1 week after sting or scrape

Pain in children under 3 years

It can be hard to tell how much pain a baby or toddler is in.

  • Severe pain (8 to 10): The pain is so bad that the baby cannot sleep, cannot get comfortable, and cries constantly no matter what you do. The baby may kick, make fists, or grimace.
  • Moderate pain (5 to 7): The baby is very fussy, clings to you a lot, and may have trouble sleeping but responds when you try to comfort him or her.
  • Mild pain (1 to 4): The baby is a little fussy and clings to you a little but responds when you try to comfort him or her.

Call 911 Now

Based on your answers, you need emergency care.

Call 911 or other emergency services now.

Shock is a life-threatening condition that may occur quickly after a sudden illness or injury.

Symptoms of shock in a child may include:

  • Passing out.
  • Being very sleepy or hard to wake up.
  • Not responding when being touched or talked to.
  • Breathing much faster than usual.
  • Acting confused. The child may not know where he or she is.

Seek Care Now

Based on your answers, you may need care right away. The problem is likely to get worse without medical care.

  • Call your doctor now to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
  • If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care in the next hour.
  • You do not need to call an ambulance unless:
    • You cannot travel safely either by driving yourself or by having someone else drive you.
    • You are in an area where heavy traffic or other problems may slow you down.

Seek Care Today

Based on your answers, you may need care soon. The problem probably will not get better without medical care.

  • Call your doctor today to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
  • If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care today.
  • If it is evening, watch the symptoms and seek care in the morning.
  • If the symptoms get worse, seek care sooner.

Shock is a life-threatening condition that may quickly occur after a sudden illness or injury.

Symptoms of shock (most of which will be present) include:

  • Passing out.
  • Feeling very dizzy or lightheaded, like you may pass out.
  • Feeling very weak or having trouble standing.
  • Not feeling alert or able to think clearly. You may be confused, restless, fearful, or unable to respond to questions.

You may need a tetanus shot depending on how dirty the wound is and how long it has been since your last shot.

  • For a dirty wound that has things like dirt, saliva, or feces in it, you may need a shot if:
    • You haven't had a tetanus shot in the past 5 years.
    • You don't know when your last shot was.
  • For a clean wound, you may need a shot if:
    • You have not had a tetanus shot in the past 10 years.
    • You don't know when your last shot was.

Symptoms of infection may include:

  • Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness in or around the area.
  • Red streaks leading from the area.
  • Pus draining from the area.
  • A fever.

Try Home Treatment

You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be able to take care of this problem at home.

  • Try home treatment to relieve the symptoms.
  • Call your doctor if symptoms get worse or you have any concerns (for example, if symptoms are not getting better as you would expect). You may need care sooner.

Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind of care you may need. These include:

  • Your age. Babies and older adults tend to get sicker quicker.
  • Your overall health. If you have a condition such as diabetes, HIV, cancer, or heart disease, you may need to pay closer attention to certain symptoms and seek care sooner.
  • Medicines you take. Certain medicines, herbal remedies, and supplements can cause symptoms or make them worse.
  • Recent health events, such as surgery or injury. These kinds of events can cause symptoms afterwards or make them more serious.
  • Your health habits and lifestyle, such as eating and exercise habits, smoking, alcohol or drug use, sexual history, and travel.

Symptoms of difficulty breathing can range from mild to severe. For example:

  • You may feel a little out of breath but still be able to talk (mild difficulty breathing), or you may be so out of breath that you cannot talk at all (severe difficulty breathing).
  • It may be getting hard to breathe with activity (mild difficulty breathing), or you may have to work very hard to breathe even when you’re at rest (severe difficulty breathing).

Symptoms of a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) may include:

  • The sudden appearance of raised, red areas (hives) all over the body.
  • Rapid swelling of the throat, mouth, or tongue.
  • Trouble breathing.

A severe reaction can be life-threatening. If you have had a bad allergic reaction to a substance before and are exposed to it again, treat any symptoms as an emergency. Even if the symptoms are mild at first, they may quickly become very severe.

Certain health conditions and medicines weaken the immune system's ability to fight off infection and illness. Some examples in adults are:

  • Diseases such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and HIV/AIDS.
  • Long-term alcohol and drug problems.
  • Steroid medicines, which may be used to treat a variety of conditions.
  • Chemotherapy and radiation therapy for cancer.
  • Other medicines used to treat autoimmune disease.
  • Medicines taken after organ transplant.
  • Not having a spleen.

Pain in adults and older children

  • Severe pain (8 to 10): The pain is so bad that you can't stand it for more than a few hours, can't sleep, and can't do anything else except focus on the pain.
  • Moderate pain (5 to 7): The pain is bad enough to disrupt your normal activities and your sleep, but you can tolerate it for hours or days. Moderate can also mean pain that comes and goes even if it's severe when it's there.
  • Mild pain (1 to 4): You notice the pain, but it is not bad enough to disrupt your sleep or activities.

Make an Appointment

Based on your answers, the problem may not improve without medical care.

  • Make an appointment to see your doctor in the next 1 to 2 weeks.
  • If appropriate, try home treatment while you are waiting for the appointment.
  • If symptoms get worse or you have any concerns, call your doctor. You may need care sooner.

Home Treatment

Home treatment can help ease your discomfort and prevent other problems.

Jellyfish and Portuguese man-of-war stings

  • Do not rub the tentacles with your hands, a towel, sand, or clothing.
  • Use hot water on the area to help remove the nematocysts, the stinging part of the tentacle. If available, topical lidocaine can be applied to the sting area.
  • If hot water and lidocaine are not available, remove the nematocysts and wash the area with salt water.
  • For some types of jellyfish stings, a compress of household vinegar (5% acetic acid solution) and hot water can be used on the affected area to prevent further stings.
  • Do not use urine, gasoline, kerosene, or turpentine.
  • Rinse eye stings with a saline solution, such as Artificial Tears. Do not put vinegar, alcohol, or any other "stinger solution" in the eyes. The skin around the eye can be dabbed with a cloth soaked in vinegar, but you must be extremely careful not to get any of the solution in the eye.
  • After decontamination, pick off tentacles with a stick or your hand protected by a towel or glove. Be very careful not to rub or press the tentacles.
  • If it is available, apply a lather of shaving cream or soap, or a paste of baking soda, flour, or talc to the skin. The stinging cells will stick to the shaving cream or paste and can then be easily scraped off with a safety razor, a knife edge, or the edge of a credit card.
  • Take an antihistamine, such as diphenhydramine or chlorpheniramine, or apply 1% hydrocortisone cream to help control itching. Note: Do not use the cream on children younger than age 2 unless your doctor tells you to. Do not use in the rectal or vaginal area in children younger than age 12 unless your doctor tells you to. Also, don't give antihistamines to your child unless you've checked with the doctor first.
  • Use an ice pack to help relieve pain.
  • Clean any open sores 3 times per day, apply an antiseptic ointment (such as bacitracin), and cover with a light bandage.

Seabather's eruption

  • Do not rub your skin. If larvae are on your skin, rubbing will cause them to sting.
  • Remove your swimsuit as soon as possible. Since larvae can become trapped in the fabric of your suit, it is important to remove a contaminated suit to prevent more stings.
  • If available, rinse in household vinegar (5% acetic acid solution) or rubbing alcohol (40%–70% isopropyl alcohol).
  • Shower with fresh water. Apply soap and vigorously scrub your skin. Do not shower with a contaminated suit on. If larvae are trapped in the fabric of a suit, a freshwater shower will cause the larvae to sting.
  • Take an antihistamine, such as diphenhydramine or chlorpheniramine, or apply 1% hydrocortisone cream cream to help control itching. Note: Do not use the cream on children younger than age 2 unless your doctor tells you to. Do not use in the rectal or vaginal area in children younger than age 12 unless your doctor tells you to. Also, don't give antihistamines to your child unless you've checked with the doctor first.
  • Use an ice pack to help relieve pain.
  • Wash the rash with soap and water daily.

Coral scrapes and cuts

Most minor coral scrapes or cuts can be treated at home.

  • Wash the wound for 5 minutes with a soft brush or towel and large amounts of warm water and soap (mild dishwashing soap, such as Ivory, works well). Cleaning the wound as soon as possible may reduce the risk of infection, scarring, and tattooing of the skin from coral material left in the wound.
  • After washing, rinse the wound with a large amount of fresh water.
  • After rinsing with fresh water, rinse the wound again with a solution of one-half hydrogen peroxide and one-half water.
  • After rinsing with a solution of one-half hydrogen peroxide and one-half water, rinse again with fresh water.
  • Stop bleeding with direct pressure to the wound.
  • Use an antibiotic ointment, such as polymyxin B sulfate (for example, Polysporin) or bacitracin. Put the ointment lightly on the wound. The ointment will keep a bandage from sticking to the wound. Be sure to read the product label about skin sensitivity. If a skin rash or itching under the bandage develops, stop using the ointment. The rash may mean you had an allergic reaction to the ointment. Antibiotic ointments that contain neomycin may have an increased risk of causing an allergic reaction.
  • Consider bandaging the wound. You may need to protect your wound from getting dirty or irritated. If available, use a nonstick dressing. Be sure to read the product label for correct use.
    • Clean the wound thoroughly before bandaging it to reduce the risk of infection occurring under the bandage.
    • Apply a clean bandage when it gets wet or soiled to further help prevent infection.
    • If a bandage is stuck to a scab, soak it in warm water to soften the scab and make the bandage easier to remove.
  • Watch for symptoms of a skin infection.
  • Be patient. Coral scrapes and cuts may take weeks and sometimes even months to heal completely.
Medicine you can buy without a prescription
Try a nonprescription medicine to help treat your fever or pain:

Talk to your child's doctor before switching back and forth between doses of acetaminophen and ibuprofen. When you switch between two medicines, there is a chance your child will get too much medicine.

Safety tips
Be sure to follow these safety tips when you use a nonprescription medicine:
  • Carefully read and follow all directions on the medicine bottle and box.
  • Do not take more than the recommended dose.
  • Do not take a medicine if you have had an allergic reaction to it in the past.
  • If you have been told to avoid a medicine, call your doctor before you take it.
  • If you are or could be pregnant, do not take any medicine other than acetaminophen unless your doctor has told you to.
  • Do not give aspirin to anyone younger than age 20 unless your doctor tells you to.

Symptoms to watch for during home treatment

Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:

Prevention

You can limit your risk of being injured by jellyfish, a Portuguese man-of-war, or coral.

  • Be familiar with the marine risks in the area where you plan to swim, snorkel, or dive. If you are traveling, obtain information about the local conditions.
  • Be prepared with first aid supplies that might be needed for a injury.
  • Watch for warning signs that are posted when there is a jellyfish or Portuguese man-of-war invasion.
  • Do not touch jellyfish, Portuguese man-of-wars, or coral.
  • Watch out for jellyfish and Portuguese man-of-wars in the water, particularly when there are strong onshore winds.
  • Stay out of the water when jellyfish and Portuguese man-of-wars are present. Look out for the bluish floats of the Portuguese man-of-war, and avoid the poisonous trailing tentacles.
  • Watch for beached jellyfish and Portuguese man-of-wars. Their tentacles may still sting.
  • Do not rely on clothing or on coating the skin with petroleum jelly (such as Vaseline) to prevent stings. Wear a wet suit to reduce your risk of getting stung. A wet suit is a close-fitting, one- or two-piece suit, usually made of rubber or foam neoprene. Swimmers, snorkelers, divers, kayakers, and other people who spend time in cold water may wear wet suits for warmth and protection.
  • Wear protective shoes when walking on the beach. Avoid stepping on marine life.
  • Avoid swimming or snorkeling in swallow water, where touching or bumping into coral might occur.
  • Wash your swimsuit with detergent and heat-dry after use. This will kill the stinging larvae that cause seabather's eruption.
  • Talk to your doctor about carrying an allergy kit if you have had any sort of allergic reaction or severe reaction to a marine sting in the past.
  • Consider using a topical jellyfish sting inhibitor lotion, such as Safe Sea.

Preparing For Your Appointment

To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.

You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:

  • What are your main symptoms?
  • When did your symptoms begin? How have your symptoms developed, progressed, or changed since the sting?
  • Do you know what you were stung by? Can you describe what stung you? Note: Bring a sample of the stinging organism with you if you can safely do so. A sample may help your doctor plan your treatment.
  • When were you stung? How many times were you stung?
  • Where were you when you were stung?
  • Have you ever had an allergic reaction or a severe reaction to a similar sting?
  • What steps have you tried at home to take care of this problem? Did they help?
  • Do you have any health risks?

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer David Messenger, MD
Last Revised April 22, 2013

Last Revised: April 22, 2013

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

© 1995-2013 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.