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Jellyfish stings and other sea creature stings - Introduction

NHS Choices Medical Reference

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Fortunately, there are only a few types of sea creatures that sting

i

n the seas around the UK.

The five main types of stinging sea creatures found in UK waters are:

  • weever fish
  • stingrays
  • sea urchins
  • jellyfish
  • Portuguese man-of-war

These are described below.

Weever fish

Weever fish are small, sandy coloured fish that usually lie buried in the sand on the seabed.

They have poisonous spines on their back and gills that can sting people, usually on the feet or hands.

Stingrays

Stingrays are flat, circular or diamond-shaped fish that have a sharp, serrated barb underneath their tail.

As with weever fish, most people stung by a stingray are stung on their lower legs, ankles and feet after accidentally stepping on one in shallow water.

Sea urchins

Sea urchins are small, round sea creatures with a bony shell covered in spines. They're usually found in the shallows, on rocks and in seaweed.

Sea urchin spines are hard, sharp and can cause puncture wounds. Between the spines are small organs that contain poison which is released as a defence mechanism.

Jellyfish

Jellyfish are mushroom-shaped creatures that often float near the surface and have long, thin tentacles on the underside of their bodies.

The tentacles are covered with small poisonous sacs called nematocysts which, if touched, produce a nasty sting.

In recent years, during the warmer months, large groups of jellyfish have become increasingly common in the seas around Europe.

Portuguese man-of-war

A Portuguese man-of-war is a large, poisonous jellyfish-like creature (although it's not a jellyfish) with a large purple-blue, gas-filled bladder and tentacles that hang below the water.

They're usually found in tropical waters but some have been spotted in UK waters or found washed up on beaches. The sting can be painful but rarely causes death.

Signs and symptoms

The visual signs and symptoms of a sting will vary depending on what has stung you. Weever fish and sea urchins usually sting your foot and often leave spines in the wound.

Stingrays can leave a large, jagged cut or puncture wound on your skin, and jellyfish and Portuguese men-of-war will often leave raised blisters on the skin in the shape of their own tentacles.

All stings are painful and cause swelling, inflammation or raised areas of skin (welts) and nausea. You may also have other symptoms, depending on what has stung you.

Read more about the symptoms of sea creature stings.

When to seek medical help

Seek medical assistance if you've been stung while in the sea and your symptoms are severe, such as severe, prolonged pain that lasts for more than an hour, or if you have other severe effects such as:

  • chest pain or breathing problems
  • severe redness and swelling around the affected area
  • fits or seizures

You should also seek medical help if you know that you've been stung by a stingray, or if you've been stung on a particularly sensitive part of your body, such as your face or genitals.

Less severe marine creature stings can be treated yourself using first aid techniques.

Read more about how marine creature stings are treated, both at home and in hospital.

Avoiding stings in the sea

It's rare to be stung in the seas around the UK, but there are precautions you can take to avoid being stung, including:

  • observing beach warning signs 
  • not touching or handling sea creatures that sting
  • wearing protective clothing, such as a wetsuit or waterproof footwear
  • scuffing your feet as you walk in shallow water to warn any sea creatures that you're approaching

Read more about how to prevent being stung in the sea.

Medical Review: June 24, 2013
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