Beach First Aid: Identifying And Treating Bites And Stings From Sea Creatures

Jellyfish, sea anemones and coral can sting. This article has tips on prevention and first aid. It also addresses how to avoid creatures that bite.

When you take a beach vacation, you go prepared to deal with the obvious hazards of sun and surf. But there are other unseen dangers at the beach you may not have thought about, but you should. Here are a few tips for dealing with marine creatures that bite and sting.

You hear a lot in the news about shark attacks, but you're much more likely to encounter a stinging jellyfish, sea anemone or coral at the beach than a man-eating shark. In fact, jellyfish stings are the most common injury sustained by beach goers every year.

Jellyfish are small, gelatinous creatures with long tentacles that contain nematocysts. Nematocysts are individual cells containing venom that's used to trap and kill the jellyfish's food. If a swimmer brushes up against the tentacles, the result is a painful sting caused by venom-filled nematocysts that lodge in the skin. And you don't have to be in the water to be stung by a jellyfish. In fact, the jellyfish doesn't even have to be alive anymore to sting you. If you step on a jellyfish tentacle while walking along the beach, the resulting sting is just as painful as the one you get by brushing up against a jellyfish while swimming.

Sea anemones and some kinds of coral also contain nematocysts, and stings from anemones or coral are similar to a jellyfish sting. Sea anemones are small creatures that attach themselves to rocks, coral, or even the backs of crabs. They use their flower-like tentacles to catch small marine animals, which are paralyzed by the anemone's venom.

Here are a few first aid tips if you suffer a jellyfish sting. Handle a sea anemone or coral sting the same way.

Rinse the sting area thoroughly with saltwater. Don't use fresh water! Why? Fresh water will activate any stinging cells that haven't already ruptured, causing more painful stings. Be careful not to rub the area, which can also rupture the nematocysts, causing more stinging.

Next, apply a liberal dose of white vinegar to the sting area as soon after the sting occurs as possible. It probably won't do much for the pain, but it will stop any unfired nematocysts from discharging and stinging you more.

Remove any tentacles that are still attached to the skin. Don't touch the tentacles with your bare hands. Use a clean cloth or towel.

If there's localized swelling, tenderness or itching, an over-the-counter antihistamine like Benadryl will help. Hydrocortisone cream reduces swelling. Take acetaminophen, aspirin, or ibuprofen for pain.

Some people are severely allergic to jellyfish venom, just as some people are allergic to bee stings. If the symptoms are more serious than those listed above, get the victim to a hospital emergency room right away. A person who is extremely allergic to these venomous sea creatures may experience swelling all over the body -- not just at the sting site. Other serious symptoms include nausea, vomiting, and difficulty breathing.

There are a few old wives' tales and folk remedies for jellyfish stings, but they don't help and could even make matters worse.

Some people will tell you to rub wet sand into the sting site. This is not a good idea because sand is abrasive and can cause unruptured nematocysts to fire, causing a fresh round of painful stings.

Jellyfish are by far the most common beach creatures that inflict injury. And while fish can sometimes bite humans, unprovoked attacks by sharks or other predatory fish are rare.

In 2003, there were 55 shark attacks worldwide, resulting in four deaths. Sharks are most likely to attack if they mistake a human being for animal prey, such as a sea lion or seal. Surfers are at higher risk, because when a human paddles with arms and feet while resting on a surfboard, he looks a lot like one of these sea animals. If you surf, avoid areas where sea lions and seals live. And steer clear of piers where people fish, because fishing attracts hungry sharks. Use common sense as well. If lifeguards or beach officials warn that there are sharks in the area, stay out of the water.

Barracuda are large, fast fish known to have a nasty bite, but they don't pose much of a threat to humans. The barracuda species that flourishes in the waters off the coast of Hawaii can grow to nearly six feet in length and weigh up to 100 pounds. While they have been known to attack people, such attacks are extremely rare -- less common than shark attacks. Like sharks, barracuda may mistake humans for another fish. Barracuda are attracted by shiny objects, which look to them like fish scales, so it's best to remove all shiny jewelry when swimming in waters where barracuda may be present. Barracuda have sharp teeth, and if they do bite, the wounds can be deep and serious. In the unlikely event to of a barracuda bite, apply pressure to stop bleeding and seek immediate medical attention.

The moray eel is another sea creature known to bite humans. Again, these bites are not all that common because moray eels live among rocky crevices or on coral reefs, where they stay hidden during the day and hunt for food at night. Divers occasionally are bitten by eels when they venture too close to the eels' habitat. Moray eels have sharp teeth that can inflict serious damage to muscles and tendons. They can also cause serious infection, so even if an eel bite looks innocuous, see a doctor right away.

The most effective way to handle any beach hazard is to prevent it from occurring in the first place. Jellyfish are seasonal creatures, and the best way to avoid them is to stay out of the water when they're abundant, and wear something on your feet while walking the beach. One other way to avoid jellyfish -- wear pantyhose while swimming. Really. While you may get some strange looks, pantyhose can keep jellyfish tentacles off the skin, preventing stings.

For those encounters you can't prevent, be prepared. Bring along a beach first aid kit that contains a bottle of white vinegar, Benadryl tablets, an over-the-counter pain reliever, hydrocortisone cream, and gauze bandages.

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