Been stung by a jellyfish? Don’t use vinegar…

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By: Sue Denhom

Researchers from Cairns Hospital and James Cook University’s Australian Institute of Tropical Health & Medicine have made a discovery that could revolutionise the treatment of jellyfish stings, including the deadly box jellyfish. Their findings? Basically, vinegar makes it worse.

After examining the effect of vinegar on the “discharged nematocysts” (read: sting) of the large box jellyfish this month, the venom experts were surprised to find the familiar folk remedy wasn’t a good idea. “Vinegar has the potential to do harm when used as first aid to treat box jellyfish stings,” Associate Professor Jamie Seymour says.

The box jellyfish injects its venom by nematocysts, which occur primarily on the tentacles, but in some species may be present on the bell (body) as well. They work like little stinging darts that fire whenever the tentacle comes in contact with chemicals on the surface of its prey’s skin.

Up until now, the appliation of vinegar was recommended as first aid if stung by the large box jellyfish in tropical Australia, while elsewhere in the country, many surf life saving clubs keep it on-hand for more common stings like bluebottles. “Through our experiments we discovered that vinegar promotes further discharge of venom from already discharged nematocysts,” says Dr Mark Little, one the published paper’s lead authors.

While Australian Resuscitation Council guidelines state that vinegar should be used for all box jelly fish stings, Dr Little suggests they should rethink the advice. “Our research shows this may not be the best course of action and it’s now for the ARC to consider whether its protocol should be changed.”

The study was funded by the Queensland Emergency Medicine Research Foundation. It’s Chairman, Dr David Rosengren, says the foundation was pleased to have funding another world-leading study. “This is a vitally important project and one that demonstrates yet again how Queensland doctors are leading the charge in emergency medicine research.”

Jellyfish stings are an increasing problem worldwide, many of which require medical treatment. Box jellyfish stings, whilst relatively rare, can be fatal, with more than 60 recorded deaths so far.

While vinegar might be off the table, other treatment methods remain intact, says Seymour. “After being stung by a box jellyfish, medical aid should be given immediately, with prolonged CPR to maximise the chance of survival.”

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Been stung by a jellyfish? Don’t use vinegar…

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