Jellyfish stings

There are many different types of jellyfish in New Zealand; however, treatment of stings is exactly the same regardless of the type of jellyfish involved.

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Photo of a washed up blue bottle, with a pale blue body which looks like you could pop it, and blue tentacles.
Washed-up blue bottle, photo by Pappito at en.wikipedia / CC-BY-SA-3.0.

The blue bottle has a burning sting. This is the jellyfish most commonly involved in stings in New Zealand waters.

Lion’s-mane jellyfish

The lion’s-mane jellyfish is a stinging jellyfish. It can be found in colours from white to deep blue. It grows to almost 2 m across. Its tentacles can be up to 5 m long and are almost invisible.

Photo of a lion’s-mane jellyfish, a large, pale blue jellyfish with many tentacles.
Lion’s-mane jellyfish, photo by Jérôme Mallefet / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

Mauve stinger

The mauve stinger, which has only few stinging catch tentacles. It can grow to 40 cm across.

Photo of a mauve stinger, a purple jellyfish with several large tentacles hanging from the bell, and a few thinner catch tentacles.
Mauve stinger, photo by Hans Hillewaert / CC-BY-SA-3.0.

Self care for jellyfish stings

If you or a family member has been stung by a jellyfish, get out of the water and follow these steps to treat the sting area. All jellyfish stings in New Zealand are treated the same way.

  1. Flush the stung area with sea water (or fresh water, if sea water is unavailable) to remove the tentacles.
  2. If tentacles are still attached use a dry towel to remove them. Wear gloves if you have some.
  3. Immerse the stung area in heated tap water for 15 to 20 minutes. Have it as hot as the person can bear without causing skin burns (and no more than 45° C). A shower can be used for stings to the torso. You can repeat the immersion for up to 2 hours after the injury, but be sure to limit the immersion periods to 15 to 20 minutes at a time with breaks between to allow cooling of the skin.
  4. Take pain relief following hot water immersion

Do not apply vinegar or methylated spirits as they can make the sting more painful. Vinegar is only effective for Box jellyfish (found in Australia)

The National Poisons Centre is available 24 hours a day on 0800 764 766 for advice on first aid and treatment of stings.

Pain medications and precautions

  • If necessary, take pain relief such as paracetamol or ibuprofen.

Antihistamines may be helpful in relieving itching and swelling.   

Medicine precautions

Do not give aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) or aspirin-containing products to anyone 18 years or younger because of the risk of a serious illness called Reye's syndrome.

Take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) with food or milk to prevent stomach irritation.

Do not give NSAIDs to anyone with:

  • NSAID-induced asthma
  • increased risk of bleeding, such as ulcer disease, a bleeding disorder, if taking blood thinners (anticoagulants), or following surgery, significant trauma or major dental work
  • an allergy to NSAIDs.

When to see your doctor

Call your doctor if you have been stung and have:

  • increasing numbness or difficulty breathing
  • signs of poisoning: abdominal pain, muscle cramps, nausea, vomiting
  • signs of infection later: increasing pain, redness, swelling, red streaks leading away from the sting, heat, discharge of pus, fever or chills
  • pain that is not controlled by following the self-care instructions
  • any new or worsening symptoms
  • A contaminated wound (a tetanus injection may be required).

Serious allergic reaction or anaphylaxis

These symptoms include:

  • swelling around the lips and eyes
  • rapid development of a rash
  • shortness of breath or wheezing
  • chest tightness
  • severe dizziness or faints
  • hoarse voice
  • difficulty swallowing or throat tightness
  • signs of shock (pale skin, rapid pulse and fainting).

However, it is rare for a patient to have an anaphylaxis to jellyfish, even if they are stung on the face or neck.

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