Jellyfish – how scared should we be and should you really wee on stings?

Jellyfish are descending on our beaches again but how dangerous are they really and what's the best way to treat a sting?

jellyfish in sea

Families having a seaside staycation this summer have been warned about an invasion of jellyfish. In fact, each summer, the tabloids share scary headlines about these ‘deadly’ creatures. The truth is, jellyfish are part of the UK’s sea wildlife and in the summer they’re often spotted in shallow waters and washed up on beaches. This year, there appear to be lots of compass jellyfish floating around – or “invading” as the papers like to say – Devon beaches.

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Compass jellyfish swimming and on sand
Compass jellyfish swimming and as it may look on the sand | Pic credit: Getty Images

Compass jellyfish do have quite a painful sting – similar to a bee sting.

Last year, there was a warning about giant barrel jellyfish (below) – some the size of dustbin lids – which washed up on the south coast. Despite their size, barrel jellyfish only have mild stings, which are likely to feel itchy.

Barrel jellyfish

This ‘bloom’ of jellyfish was due to a combination of rising sea temperatures and some strong winds, while previously winter flooding had caused rivers to burst their banks and wash nutrients into the sea. These nutrients caused an abundance of plankton – which jellyfish feed on. Just nature doing its thing.

So how dangerous are jellyfish – and how scared should we and our children be?

I write this as someone who, as a child, would run screaming from a marooned jellyfish drying out on the sand. And spotting one in the sea, woah… we’re talking Jaws-size terror. I don’t want to pass this irrational fear to my children.

The key advice is look but don't touch jellyfish
Marine Conservation Society

According to the Marine Conservation Society, most jellyfish do sting (some quite severely) but no one in the UK has ever died from a jellyfish sting. Their key advice is to look but not touch jellyfish.

The most common jellyfish that you’re likely to see in the UK have fairly mild stings.

“In the UK, you’re going to see things like moon jellyfish,” says James Robson, jellyologist (yes, really) from London’s Sea Life Centre. “Their stings are so mild, you may not even feel it.”

Moon jellyfish on sandy beach
Moon jellyfish (also called saucer jellyfish) washed up on a beach | Pic credit: Getty Images

“The general majority of species you’ll see in the UK don’t have a sting, or if they do it isn’t that bad – they’ll either be itchy or at a stinging nettle level.

The Marine Conservation Society has a great jellyfish spotting chart to download so you can tell your mild stingers (moon, barrel) from your ouch, serious stingers (lion’s mane, mauve, man o’war).

What should I do if my child spots a jellyfish?

Child scared by jellyfish
Yes, this was me (although it’s not me obvs) Pic credit: Getty Images

As we’ve mentioned, the general advice is not to touch any jellyfish, whether it’s alive or dead.

“Jellyfish aren’t designed to be touched,” explains James from the Sea Life Centre. “And no matter what kind of jellyfish it is, the stings can still sting for a long time after it has died.”

If you’re in the water swimming and you spot one, James says not to panic, but there will be others nearby. However, as jellyfish are pretty self-involved creatures who are simply following the currents, you should be able to move away if you remain calm.

Are dangerous jellyfish more likely in popular family holiday destinations abroad?

According to James, some of the worst stingers are found in popular beach resort countries like Spain and Portugal.

“One thing to definitely look out for is the Portuguese man o’war,” explains James.

“It’s not actually a jellyfish, it’s called a zooid, but it looks like a floaty purple sail. Man o’war stings are serious.” They’ve been described as a sudden burn with a hot whip.

Man o war jellyfish on beach
Pic credit: Getty Images

The jelly body of a man o’war can be 30cm long, but its tentacles are around 10m and its these tentacles that can sting. Its bright colours can make it seem attractive to little ones, but like its jellyfish counterparts, it’s definitely best avoided.

How to treat a jellyfish sting – no, do not urinate on it

Do you remember that Friends episode, “The One with the Jellyfish”, where Chandler wees on Monica after she has been stung by a jellyfish? Well, although it was a hilarious story line, it seems that the sitcom’s scientific researchers were sadly misinformed.

The Red Cross advises against using urine to lessen the pain of jellyfish stings, despite popular belief, and suggests seawater is the most effective immediate solution.

Child standing near jellyfish washed up on beach
Pic credit: Getty Images

“A sting from a jellyfish can be extremely painful, but trying to treat it with urine isn’t going to make your day any better,” says Joe Milligan, head of first aid at the British Red Cross.

“Urine just doesn’t have the right chemical make-up to solve the problem. Instead, a better source of treatment is even easier at hand: salty seawater. If people have been stung, they first need to get out of the water to avoid getting stung again. But then once out, slowly pouring seawater over the sting will help ease the pain.”

The NHS then recommends you look for any stings or spines in your skin and remove them, not with your hands, but with a credit card or tweezers. If there’s a lifeguard, talk to them because they may have some first aid advice. And then, soak the area in warm water (as hot as you can bear) for at least 30 minutes.

“Have the water as hot as you can stand” adds James from Sea Life Centre. “What this does is essentially denature the toxins and dissolve away the mechanism. It’s the safest, controlled way of getting rid of it.”

So, if you’re heading to British beaches and you do spot jellyfish, you may want to keep a bucket of seawater warming in the sun, just in case.

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