What's behind the sting?

Published May 27, 2010

This weekend marks the start official start of beach season! Every year around this time we start to hear more about jellies because people see them while visiting beaches and swimming in oceans. But unfortunately, the interactions we tend to have with jellies in the ocean are not very pleasant ones.

Recently, a young girl from Australia was the chatter among medical experts around the world for her amazing recovery from a "deadly" jellyfish sting. We all know that jellies have the power to inflict pain to us humans, and have heard that some jellies can even be deadly.  So is her survival of a box jelly sting a miracle? Box jellies are not a part of the Jellies Invasion exhibit, so our experts don't have to deal with them on a daily basis. But when asked, Aquarist Vicky Poole said, "As this is a creature with one of the most toxic venoms in the world, I’d say it was a miracle." The odds of surviving a severe box jelly envenomation is extremely rare. Box jelly stings have a 20% mortality rate, which includes both severe and mild cases, but the extent of the sting, covering her entire leg, is what makes her survival such a surprise for her doctors. So what's behind the sting? Jellies are animals without brains (or hearts, for that matter), so there is no “decision” about stinging. They indiscriminately will sting anything they happen to bump into – prey (for food) or predator (for defense). Vicky reminds us that it’s really their survival strategy…sting first and ask no questions later! What happens when a jelly stings? Their tentacles have tiny microscopic stinging cells called “nematocysts” that look like fishing harpoons with barbs that penetrate our skin, and then stay in place while the venom is injected into the body of the victim. There is often pain at the site, and usually you’ll notice localized swelling or welts due to the skin’s reaction to the toxins. Depending on the species of jelly, the body’s reaction will vary in severity, and some people have a more severe reaction than others. In extremely toxic species, severe reactions may involve difficulty breathing, coma, or even death. Let’s bust some myths – can anything really treat a sting? Although weak acids (like vinegar) and very hot water have been reportedly used to neutralize jelly stings, your body will still react to the venom in your system so pain management is needed. And if you’re in areas where dangerous species of jellies exist, Vicki suggests that you seek medical attention immediately. After all, she's no doctor, just a humble jelly aquarist! Even though these brainless, heartless creatures instill fear among beach-goers around the world, they are truly fascinating creatures that are an important part of our marine ecosystem. This summer before you hit the beach, we invite you learn more about jellies. You can start by exploring the Jellies Invasion: Oceans Out of Balance website!
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