Bluebottles are the most common cause of jellyfish stings in Australia. Bluebottles vary in size, and the severity of the sting usually depends on the amount of contact the skin has had with the tentacle.
A bluebottle sting usually causes an immediate and severe pain, which generally fades over about an hour. You can usually see where on the body the sting has occurred because there will be a red line where the tentacle has touched. Sometimes this line has a ‘beaded’ appearance, and is swollen and itchy.
Occasionally blisters can develop at the site of the sting, and very rarely the sting will later cause scarring.
It is very unlikely that someone who has been stung by a bluebottle will develop other symptoms such as abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, although it is possible.
Treatment for bluebottle stings
Following a bluebottle sting it is important to carefully remove any remaining tentacles. This should be done by gently washing the area in sea water and carefully picking off any tentacles, taking care to avoid further stings, preferably by wearing gloves.
Washing the site of the sting with vinegar is NOT recommended for bluebottle stings. It is now recommended that the area where the bluebottle sting has occurred be immersed in hot water (45 degrees Celsius – no hotter than the rescuer can comfortably tolerate) for at least 20 minutes or, if this is not possible, direct a hot shower on the area for this length of time.
Recent studies have shown that this use of hot water is more effective at reducing the pain of bluebottle stings than the previously advised use of ice packs and cold water. However, if hot water is not available a cold pack may help.
If after this treatment there is continuing pain, itchiness or blistering at the site of the sting, it would be best to visit a doctor who might prescribe a topical treatment such as a cortisone cream to reduce the inflammatory reaction.
In the tropical north of Australia, the first aid advice for jellyfish stings is slightly different as the box jellyfish and Irukandji jellyfish are found in these waters. Their stings can be life-threatening. Vinegar is effective at stopping the tentacles of these jellyfish releasing more venom (the opposite to the effect on bluebottles). In tropical Australia, if you cannot clearly identify a jellyfish sting as due to a harmless jellyfish or bluebottle, then it is safer to treat the sting with vinegar and to call for medical help.
Although extremely unlikely, it is possible that a bluebottle sting could trigger an anaphylactic reaction (a severe allergic reaction that can be life-threatening). If a person who has been stung by a bluebottle develops distressing chest tightness or difficulty breathing and is getting worse, call 000 to get urgent medical help. You should also seek medical help if the sting area is large (e.g. affects more than half of the arm or leg) or involves a sensitive area such as the eye.