Jellyfish stings and other sea creature stings
A sea creature sting can usually be treated with first aid. But if serious symptoms develop, such as severe pain, swelling or difficulty breathing, dial 999 for an ambulance.
Fortunately, there are only a few stinging sea creatures in the seas around the UK. These are:
- weever fish
- sea urchins
- Portuguese man-of-war
These are described below.
Weever fish are small, sandy-coloured fish that usually lie buried in the sand on the seabed.
They have poisonous spines on their back and gills that can sting you, usually on your feet or hands.
Stingrays are flat, circular or diamond-shaped fish that have a sharp, serrated barb underneath their tail.
As with weever fish, most people stung by a stingray are stung on their lower legs, ankles and feet after accidentally stepping on one in shallow water.
Sea urchins are small, round sea creatures with a bony shell covered in spines. They’re usually found in the shallows, on rocks and in seaweed.
Sea urchin spines are hard, sharp and can cause puncture wounds. Between the spines are small organs, containing a poison that’s released as a defence mechanism.
Jellyfish are mushroom-shaped creatures that often float near the surface and have long, thin tentacles on the underside of their bodies.
The tentacles are covered with small poisonous sacs called nematocysts which, if touched, produce a nasty sting.
During the warmer months in recent years, large groups of jellyfish have become increasingly common in the seas around Europe.
A Portuguese man-of-war is a large, poisonous jellyfish-like creature (although it’s not a jellyfish) with a large purple-blue, gas-filled bladder and tentacles that hang below the water.
They’re usually found in tropical waters, but some have been spotted in UK waters or found washed up on beaches. The sting can be painful, but rarely causes death.
Signs and symptoms
All stings are painful and cause swelling, inflammation or raised areas of skin (welts) and nausea. You may also have other symptoms, depending on what has stung you.
Weever fish and sea urchins usually sting your foot and often leave spines in the wound.
Stingrays can leave a large, jagged cut or puncture wound on your skin.
Jellyfish and Portuguese men-of-war often leave raised blisters on the skin in the shape of their own tentacles.
Read more about the symptoms of sea creature stings.
When to seek medical help
Seek medical assistance if you’ve been stung while in the sea and your symptoms are severe – for example:
- severe, prolonged pain
- chest pain or breathing problems
- severe redness and swelling around the affected area
- fits or seizures
You should also seek medical help if you know you’ve been stung by a stingray, or if you’ve been stung on a particularly sensitive part of your body, such as your face or genitals.
Less severe marine creature stings can be treated yourself using first aid techniques.
Read more about how marine creature stings are treated, both at home and in hospital.
Avoiding stings in the sea
It’s rare to be stung in the seas around the UK, but there are precautions you can take to avoid being stung, including:
- observing beach warning signs
- not touching or handling sea creatures that sting
- wearing protective clothing, such as a wetsuit or waterproof footwear
- scuffing your feet as you walk in shallow water to warn any sea creatures that you’re approaching
Read more about how to prevent being stung in the sea.
What happens when you’re stung
Treating sea creature stings
Preventing sea creature stings
If you’re going to swim in the sea, there are things you can do to avoid being stung and ensure you have easy access to medical care.
For example, you can:
- observe warning signs on the beach – warning signs are often put up after sightings of groups of jellyfish or Portuguese men-of-war
- swim near a lifeguard – if you’re stung, you’ll usually need immediate first aid or, in severe cases, a means of contacting an ambulance
- don’t touch or handle stinging sea creatures – avoid touching jellyfish or Portuguese men-of-war washed up on the beach, because their tentacles can sting, even when they’re dead
- wear protective clothing, such as a wetsuit or waterproof footwear – as weever fish, stingrays and sea urchins are often found in shallow water, wearing rubber-soled shoes or sandals will help protect your feet while in shallow water or rocky areas; wearing a wetsuit will help protect against jellyfish stings if you’re swimming in deeper water for prolonged periods
- scuff your feet when walking in shallow water – this will disturb and scare off any stinging sea creatures that may be in your path
- take care when walking in rocky areas or near seaweed – sea urchins are often found in shallow, rocky areas, such as rock pools
First aid training and kit
If you spend a considerable amount of time in the sea, it’s a good idea to get some basic first aid training and to carry a basic first aid kit with you.
The kit should contain items useful for treating sea creature stings, such as a pair of gloves, tweezers, a saline (salt) solution and painkillers.
If you’re allergic to insect stings, you should carry appropriate medication with you, such as an adrenaline injection kit. Make sure the people you’re with are aware of your allergy and know how to administer the medication, in case you’re unable to do it yourself.