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Be careful and prepared during stinger season

8 December 2017

Cape York, Torres Strait and Northern Peninsula area residents have been warned to take care when swimming in the sea, following the start of the annual stinger season.

“We’ve already had a reported jellyfish sting at Bamaga but luckily it was a mild case,’’ Torres and Cape Hospital and Health Service Director of Medical Services North Dr Tony Brown said.

“However, the sting is a timely warning to start taking precautions when swimming in the sea in any northern waters.’’

Dr Brown said swimmers could avoid being stung by wearing stinger protective clothing or simply staying out of the water.

“A protective suit such as a wetsuit or lycra suit will protect the covered areas of the body and significantly reduce your risk of being stung,’’ Dr Brown said.

“If you don’t have a protective suit and you know there could be stingers or jellyfish in the water, just don’t go in.

“The effects of an encounter with a jellyfish can range from receiving a painful sting, right through to a potentially fatal sting from a box jellyfish or one of the jellyfish causing Irukandji syndrome.’’

Dr Brown said three general types of jellyfish caused pain. Each was different in appearance and required different treatment.

They are: jellyfish that cause Irukandji syndrome, the blue bottle (Physalia utriculus) and the box jellyfish (Chironex fleckeri).

Of these, the box jellyfish and jellyfish causing Irukandji syndrome were known to cause potential fatalities, Dr Brown said.

Jellyfish causing Irukandji syndrome

These jellyfish are found under the surface of the water. They are considered strong swimmers.

There are several different types but the main type found in tropical waters is the Carukia barnesi.

The jellyfish that cause Irukandji syndrome may be found in the water for just a few days or for weeks on end.

So you must always remain alert during the ‘stinger season’, which generally extends from November to the end of May but may start earlier and finish later.

The Irukandji variety of jellyfish is a small transparent box-shaped jellyfish, of only about 1-2 cm in diameter, and usually difficult to see. Some newly described species may be larger (up to 10 cm).

Irukandji syndrome from stings from jellyfish like Carukia barnesi may take from a few minutes to 45 minutes to develop.

It can cause nausea, anxiety, headache, waves of spasms in the back and stomach, dizziness, a terrible sense of dread and difficulty in breathing, so it is important to call an ambulance if someone has evidence of any serious sting or symptoms from a sting.

Although considered life-threatening, the only two so far reported and confirmed Irukandji syndrome fatalities both occurred in early 2002 – the first off Hamilton Island in the Whitsundays and the second on Opal Reef, off Port Douglas.”

First aid is to use vinegar to wash Irukandji stings. DO NOT use salt or fresh water as it will cause the stinging cells to discharge and worsen the sting.

Box jellyfish

The Australian box jellyfish, Chironex fleckeri, is extremely dangerous and a constant threat through the warmer months on the Northern Queensland coast.

The Chironex box jellyfish is a large but almost transparent jellyfish with a box-shaped bell (with four corners) up to 30 cm in diameter.

Up to 15 ribbon-like tentacles arise from each of the four corners (up to 60 tentacles in total).

Each tentacle can be up to 3 m long. It is a strong swimmer found under the surface of the water.

A major Chironex sting is immediately and excruciatingly painful. It should be considered life threatening.

Large box jellies such as Chironex have caused more than 70 fatalities in Australia.

Similar to the treatment of Irukandji jellyfish stings, DO NOT use salt or fresh water to treat Chironex – it will cause the stinging cells to discharge and worsen the sting. Use vinegar instead for both these types of jellyfish stings.

It can be difficult to work out which species of jellyfish has caused a sting, so if in doubt, treat as if it was potentially serious.

In terms of treatment for any sting, the priority is to keep the patient stable and safe. Medical advice should always be sought if pain persists.

Blue bottle

The common blue bottle found in Australia is the Physalia utriculus.

The blue bottle jellyfish floats on top of the water. It has an air-filled sac of up to 8 cm in length, usually with a single, long, blue main fishing tentacle hanging underneath.

The pain is immediate and intense but not considered life-threatening.

If the sting is clearly from a blue bottle do not use vinegar but instead wash off the tentacles with seawater.

The Australian Resuscitation Council advises the following for jellyfish stings:

  • Call for help (call for an ambulance immediately on 000 if the patient is extremely unwell).
  • Check for level of consciousness and assess airway, breathing, circulation, and resuscitate if required – early resuscitation after major stings from Chironex box jellies has saved lives in the past few years.
  • Douse the sting site liberally with vinegar to neutralise the stinging cells – UNLESS the sting is from a blue bottle, in which case wash off with water. Pick off any tentacles.
  • Seek medical aid as soon as possible. Call for an ambulance if this has not already occurred, if there is persistent pain or any ongoing or worsening symptoms.

Dr Brown said in-hospital treatment for a marine sting could vary depending upon the severity of the sting and the type of symptoms being exhibited.

Antivenom was available for Chironex fleckeri and other multi-tentacled box jellyfish stings but not for jellyfish causing Irukandji syndrome, he said.

Generally, pain management and observation are the most important factors.

For more information see

Photo caption: Jellyfish.

Last updated: 12 December 2017