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Portuguese Man of War Sting First Aid

Updated on August 17, 2010

Don't touch! But if you do...

Where I live there are two main types of jellyfish. There is a jellyfish we call a jellyball or cabbagehead jellyfish, which can't sting, so you could actually play catch with it. Then there is the Portuguese Man of War or the Man 'o War which isn't really a jellyfish at all, but an animal that looks a lot like a jellyfish. The sting of the Man of War is painful and could even kill you, so I've had a vested interested in learning Man of War sting first aid.

Man of War Photo: NOAA

About the Portuguese Man of War

The Portuguese Man of War is also called a Blue Bottle, Blue Bubble, or Man o War. The Portuguese Man of War (Physalia) can be found in any ocean when the water becomes warm. They are most often seen when strong winds have blown them near or onto the shore. These creatures are characterized by their blue, violet, or pink balloon-like float, which trails clusters of tentacles and polyps. The tentacles, which may extend 165 feet (~50 meters) in length, house the stinging nematocysts. The nematocysts sting upon contact. The man-of-war sting can cause a life-threatening reaction, although this is rare. More commonly, inappropriate first aid worsens the sting from what it would normally be. Many properly-treated stings resolve on their own, sometimes as quickly as 15-20 minutes. That's why it is important to take prompt and proper action in the event of a man-of-war sting. Here's what to do (and not to do):

The Most Important Thing

The Man of War does not have to be alive to sting you. Tentacles can sting and release venom literally for weeks. Don't touch these animals! Tentacles can trail out for 20 feet beyond the blue float, so stay far away.

Symptoms of Man-of-War and Jellyfish Stings

First, know your jellyfish! A man-of-war is different from a true jellyfish and both are different from a box jellyfish. If you don't know what caused the sting, carefully lift off any remaining tentacles and rinse with seawater. Don't scrub the area and don't apply any chemical (e.g., vinegar, fresh water, commercial product), as inappropriate use can cause injury or death. Don't make the sting worse. Unless the person has a reaction to the venom, stings heal well on their own. Here are the symptoms of a man-of-war or jellyfish sting:

Painful raised red lesions running along the site of tentacle contact (most common symptom)

The lesions may become filled with fluid. Sometimes these will heal with pigmentation.

Muscle spasms in the affected area

Systemic reactions: nausea, vomiting, headaches, dizziness, muscle weakness, runny nose, difficulty breathing, and irregular heart rate (these symptoms are more likely to occur in sensitive individuals or those with extensive stings)

First Aid for Man-of-War Stings

Prevent further stings. Carefully lift off tentacle remnants, using a stick or gloved fingers. Do not rub the tentacles off, as this will cause more nematocysts to sting.

Next, rinse the affected area with seawater. Do NOT use fresh water or vinegar, as these may cause the stinging cells to discharge all at once and may greatly worsen the sting! Do not scrub the affected area. [vinegar, papain (as in meat tenderizer), baking soda, urine, or aluminum sulfate all may deactivate the toxin, but they may also cause the stinging cells to discharge all at once, possibly intensifying the injury]

Ice may be applied to reduce pain and swelling.

Pain can be countered with topical treatment of products containing lidocaine or benzocaine (as in those products used for sunburn).

Diphenhydramine (benadryl) cream may be applied for persistent itching.

Seek immediate medical attention if the person stung is having any difficulty breathing or maintaining consciousness.

Seek medical attention for muscle spasms.

Infection is possible, so seek medical attention if the pain persists, the rash worsens, a feeling of overall illness develops, lymph nodes become swollen, a red streak develops between lymph nodes and the sting, or the area becomes hot, red, and tender.

It is not uncommon for the sites of man-of-war stings to 'flare up' with irritation periodically for up to 6-8 weeks following the sting. Unless the signs of infection are seen, these symptoms tend to resolve on their own.

Try a Wetsuit - Protection Against Man of War Stings

A swimsuit will protect your skin from a man of war or a jellyfish, but it doesn't provide total coverage. You could wear pantyhose to protect your legs or you could try a wetsuit.

First Aid for Animal Stings - Man of War and More

Blue Bottles Aren't Always Blue

Guess what! The float of a Blue Bottle or Portuguese Man of War isn't always blue. Sometimes the float can appear pink or purple.

Look but Don't Touch! (Frank Krämer)

Look but Don't Touch! (Frank Krämer)
Look but Don't Touch! (Frank Krämer)

Nature's Balloon

The Man of War can't steer itself. The float is at the mercy of the wind and waves. You could touch the float, but it's best not to, just in case there is a tentacle sitting on it.

Other Health-Related Lenses

If you found the information from the Portuguese Man-of-War first aid lens helpful, you may enjoy some of my other related lenses.

Questions or comments about Portuguese Man of War stings or this lens?

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    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Got stung by a MOW about a week ago (North Coast, KZN, South Africa). It was the most painful experience I've ever had! My first instinct was to rub the area with sand, after getting to the cottage Mom put vinegar on the area - that seemed to relieve the pain for about 10 seconds - I then Googled treatments and read about the Do's and Don'ts. I did all the wrong things at first and that might have made it worse. I immediately took an anti-hystamine tablet, and after reading up on the internet I put my leg in warm water for a few minutes... the pain subsided after about an hour.Today the area started itching terribly and got all red and swollen again. I thouhgt something was seriously wrong, but after reading this article I understand that this is quite common and that it will pass within a couple of weeks. Certainly hope something like this never happens again!!

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      i was hit real hard by a manowar in galveston tx in july i was jumping waves with my 5yr old son an i saw a blue pink thing in the wave so i yanked my son out of the water an as soon as i did it hit my left knee an wraped around my leg all the way to my ankle an i tell u what iv been stung a lot in my day but iv never felt the pain that i felt that day and i had no idea how to stop it i peed on it sand salt water beer everything but nothing and its been almost a year and its steel on my leg a a crazy scare i want to kno wht i can get to keep with me at all times if it happens to me or anyone around me

    • Glenda Motsavage profile image

      Glenda Motsavage 4 years ago from The Sunshine State

      Just recently learned about this type of jelly fish after seeing some gorgeous renditions in an art gallery. So beautiful, yet so dangerous!

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      My brother in law was stung 11 days ago and I had an allergic reaction on my hands from removing the tentacles off his leg. i still have a red, hot area on each of my palms. guess i should see a dr.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      The only way to eliminate all pain is to pour ammonia over the sting. B e careful you do not inhale the fumes from the ammonia bottle .guaranted to work.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I was badly stung on my upper right arem 2 years ago. The area still raises during the hot months and it the upper layers of skin have remained numb since the sting. Is this common?

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Every year the bluebottle or man-o-war jelly fish are blown on to our shores in Nth Queensland. I know of only one cure that can be applied at the beach - dilute bleach. By personal observation it's very effective

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I got stung yesterday I was swimming in the gulf of Mexico in Florida and I saw what looked like a cloth under water so I went to grab it to see what it was and as soon as I touched it an extremely powerful sting came then I saw the float so I ran to shore ASAP to a lifeguard they removed tentacles from me the put on some kind of creme. For the rest of the day it was extremely painful then in the morning most of the pain was gone but it was all swelled up and some parts of my hand was purple and numb

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Just got stung today! Sure was painful but after a numbed in up, I was fine

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image

      Tolovaj Publishing House 5 years ago from Ljubljana

      I heard Portuguese man of war is really not an animal but community of different organisms living in symbiosis. True or false, no kidding with this jellyfish...

    • profile image

      cody44 5 years ago

      Powerful sea creature!!! will certainly keep away from that!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      This thing stung my dad :( im so scared should i call the police?

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I got stung from my foot all the way up to my hip and it wrapped around me and also got my sisters wrist alittle and we were about 20feet away from each other. When i got stung my legs when numb. I was lucky enough to have been able to scream for help and saying i got stung before i fell underwater. It hurts a lot but when u get stung do your best to stay calm and scream for help and saying you got stung. have people help you get to shore and get a lifeguard if they are not already there when you get to shore. Always watch out for the signs of an allergic reaction. If you are not sure ask the lifeguard.or call 911. DO NOT WASH THE STING WITH FRESHWATER! i was lucky enough to be able to take a shower without washing that leg with freshwater. and also i was lucky because my hotel had a saltwater pool.

    • NorDac LM profile image

      NorDac LM 5 years ago

      Old remedy, urine. Pretty gross, but it desolves the enzimes.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      I got stung two days ago. it hurt and I rubbed it with sand and rinsed it with fresh water. My leg went numb and then it went away. that night i woke up at 5am to muscle spasms, itching, and extreme irritation. I took benadryl/benaryl cream. it helped. Right now i'm still having bad muscle spasms and its irritated. LOVE FLORIDA

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      I got stung yesterday. It don't hurt that bad. I got stung in four places and had muscle spasms and now its worsening. Go Hawaii... -.-

    • johnlfa profile image

      johnlfa 6 years ago

      Good advice, thanks!

    • Bella Stella profile image

      Bella Stella 6 years ago

      This is such a strange creature... with an even stranger name! It is the first time I have heard of it. How big can it be? I was impressed by the length of its tentacles!

    • joanv334 profile image

      joanv334 6 years ago

      Thanks for sharing!

    • TheGoodSource101 profile image

      TheGoodSource101 6 years ago

      They are a tough sting that's for sure. Great Lens

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Well Folly Beach SC strikes again! We were ther on Labor Day and our 11 year old daughter got stung pretty bad. The paramedics and lifeguards at Folly Beach were great, she loved the attention, andthey responsed very fast. They did treat it like a jellyfish sting though with the vinegar which did not help, but it did not seem to make it worse either. They did put heat on it immediately. My daugher's stings have small tentacle marks every couple of millimeters, are others like that? Got both her arms and right leg pretty bad. It flared up today which is a week later. She is very uncomfortable. Nurse recommended Benadryl and Pepsid AC? She took a warm bath and does well if she is distracted. Gosh, 7 more weeks of this! uuuggghhhh!!!

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      I recently got stung by a man of war on tybee island ga Aug. 17, 2010. I was stung the day before on the foot by a regular jellyfish and it hurt but the pain went away in about 10 min. I wasn't sure it was a man of war sting at first so i poured vinegar on it and it hurt really bad and swelled up more. I instantly got sick and kept vomitting for about 12 hrs. I wasn't able to even keep ice chips down. I finally thought the swelling was going away after about a week and now it has flared back up and is itching like crazy. Now after reading others stories i am pretty sure it was a man of war.

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      I got stung at N. Forrest Beach Hilton Head. I have never had anything that hurt and stung to bad. When I got out of the water I put wet sand and ocean water on it. My daughter poured beer on it which helped for a litted while. I did ice oral benadryl. Now a week later it has flared back up. It is red swollen and itchy. I an doing ice, caladryl and benadryl. I hope this doesn't last to much longer.

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      @anonymous: my daughter got stung at Folly around the same date (August 2010) and she had flare ups a full week later! Terrible itching!

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      My best friend was recently stung at Folly Beach, SC, but no one saw what it was. (After reading this, I'm pretty sure it was the man o war.) She was sent to the ER via ambulance because the life guards couldn't get her pain under control or help her calm down. They washed it with vinegar first, and according to this website that only makes it worse. Then in the ER, the docs gave her a tap water/vinegar bath which lead to more screams. They gave her a sedative and strong pain meds to help her calm down when they realized the nematocysts were probably still on her foot. They used medical tape to rip these off and sent her home. I think she got the right treatment, but it was all in the WRONG order. It's been 6 days and she's at the doctor's today because of what sounds like a "flare up of irritation" because her pain rx isn't working, nor is benedryl. I hate to tell her she's go 7 weeks left of this.

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      After removing the tentacles and washing the area with sea water apply a mixture of campho phenique and baking soda made into a thick paste and apply on the affected area. It works great on all sorts of poisonous stings eve on stinging nettles.

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      i just got stung by man of wars this afternoon on my regular ocean swim... It was windy, but that is normal for Kailua beach, so did not think much about it.

      On my way swimming back in, i felt like I swam into an electirc fence and could feel "strings" all over my arms... needless to say it freaked me out so I swam really fast to get back in. When I got back to shore, I talked to some folks on the beach, and I told them i think I got stung, they saw my arms and agreed.

      I immediately went to the drug store, rubbed some gel on the wounded areas, then when I got home I read online that vinegar pulls the sting out. My arms felt as though they were on fire, I asked my neighbor to rub the vinegar on my arms, (that was about 20 mins ago) and it helped, but i still feel tremendous stingy on my arms...

      This is the first time EVER I have been stung... I do feel muscle weakness and like I am going to vomit, along with a quickened pulse (my heart is racing) strange.

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      Carrie, I am so sorry you are going through this awful experience.

      I was stung while on vacation in Italy swimming in the Meditteranean a week ago. I believe it was a Portuguese Man o War. (I hear they are now present in that area) The pain was so severe upon contact, I had trouble walking immediately after. In fact, my leg swelled terribly within two days and my flight home to the U.S. was delayed two days. I was seen for potential blood clots. The sting left three long finger-type welts on the inner part of my right knee/shin area and a huge - what I call - palm print on the back of my knee. I was given ten days of strong anitbiotics and advised to keep my leg elevated to help the swelling. Now, after a week, I am starting to develop new raised welts as well as severe itching, some swelling and pain in my leg. After reading your article, I am worried this will go on for 6-8 weeks. It is awful. Thanks for the information, however.

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      I believe I was stung by a man o' war while floating in the surf at Ocean Isle Beach, NC. My symptoms are very similar to what is described in this article. The 1st symptoms were severe burning of both lower legs. I did not see what stung me. A week later , I had a flare up of intense itching along with pain and raised welts (again). I went to the dr. who prescribed a cortisone injection and methylprednisolone pills for 6 days. I now have the welts back and I am just taking antihistamines in the form of zyrtec during the day and benadryl at night. I also use benadryl gel on the afffected areas. I have 3 -5 more weeks, supposedly!!!

    • profile image

      anonymous 8 years ago

      My local beach is full of them at the moment. I thought I should check them out, and this website gave me a lot of information. As I go swimming/body boarding weekly with mt life saving club, I thought I should know. ;) Thanks.

    • DeeHayes profile image

      DeeHayes 8 years ago

      Great lens, I really enjoyed it. Although I don't get the opportunity to go to the beach often, jellyfish has always been my biggest fear of getting in the ocean.