Summer is definitely here, and as the sun shines bright and hot in the sky, there’s never been a better time for the beach.
We all love listening to the sound of the ocean, splashing around the surf, and reading a fun book while we forget about work. Kids will spend hours making sandcastles and burying each other in the sand. What more could you ask for?
But though it seems like the last place you would have to worry about your health, the beach can be a dangerous place.
No, we’re not talking about swimming dangers like undertow or big waves—it’s not the water that poses the danger so much as what’s in the water.
While no one who has ever seen Jaws will forget the images of the great shark devouring helpless swimmers, in fact, unprovoked shark attacks are incredibly rare, with a grand total of 66 in 2018, per the University of Florida.
We’re talking about jellyfish. While we commonly associate these alien-looking blobs with weirdness more than danger, “the 43 known species of box jellyfish cause more death and serious injuries than sharks, sea snakes, and stingrays combined,” according to Men’s Health.
What are jellyfish and why are they so dangerous? To begin with, they don’t have brains or backbones, but this doesn’t mean that they are unintelligent or cowardly. They’re just different!
The Portuguese Man o’ War has been showing up on American and European beaches in increasing numbers over the past few years. The name might be strange, but it refers to a key part of this strange creature’s anatomy—namely the gas bladder that when inflated looks and functions as a sail.
These weird creatures are not only distinguished by their “sail”; it’s their tentacles that inspire awe and fear. The Man o’ War’s toxic tentacles trail behind the main part of the body and are, on average, 30 feet long (!), according to Mental Floss. But they can get much, much longer—up to over 100 feet.
It’s these tentacles that can be deadly. They are covered in what scientists call nematocysts, which are tiny cells containing powerful toxins that discharge when coming into contact with another creature. They lodge themselves in the skin of the jellyfish’s prey (such as shrimp and fish) or enemies.
Imagine hundreds of little poison bombs exploding in your skin! This is what happens when your body comes into contact with Man o’ War tentacles, even those that have been separated from the rest of the organism.
Because Man o’ War stings put toxins in your body, they provoke a response that’s similar to allergens. Your skin will get red and swollen where the tentacles touched it, your heart rate will go up, and you might have terrible cramping as your muscles contract. Most of all, the pain is intense!
In rare cases, people will die from cardiac arrest or drowning if they are stung while swimming in deeper water.
But what can you do to avoid these dangerous creatures, and if you are stung, what can you do?
First of all, jellyfish are carried by current and wind patterns that are often very predictable. Research the beaches you want to go to and find out if your travel is planned during a season when they’re common.
Second, take warnings seriously. Most beaches will raise a purple flag to indicate the presence of dangerous marine life, including jellyfish.
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If you are stung, there is some good news. While many people have historically used all kinds of strange remedies, from lemon juice to soap to seawater, even human urine, to treat them, none of these techniques have any scientific backing and may even make things worse.
Thankfully, scientists in Hawaii and Ireland banded together to test how the jellyfish toxins in skin responded to different treatments. As released by the University of Hawaii at Manoa: “the best first aid is to rinse with vinegar to remove any residual stingers or bits of tentacle left on the skin and then immerse in 45°C (113°F) hot water or apply a hot pack for 45 minutes.”
So enjoy the beach this summer, but remember to protect yourself and your loved ones!