By: R. Michael Brown, Civic Association Communications Director — Town of Palm Beach Ocean Rescue is advising beachgoers to watch out for a stinging danger that is blowing ashore in the water and on the sand at area beaches.
They are blue, pink, and purple balloon-like creatures and they’re called Portuguese Man-O-War – a critter that packs a sting that is much more severe than your average jellyfish.
Strong east and southeast winds have brought extra man-o-war into the area, prompting lifeguards to fly yellow flags for dangerous rip currents and purple flags because of “lots of man-o-war.”
Man-o-war blow ashore November to April, with March being the peak month because of Spring easterly winds. They wash ashore with tentacles that can be more than 150-feet long.
Yes, that’s right, the tentacles can stretch out in search of food for up to 150 feet. So if you see a man-o-war in the water or on the beach, the tentacles can sting you far from the main animal where the balloon-like sail is.
Stinging Man-o-War Warning at Beaches [Civic Association Video – 31 sec.]
A Portuguese man-o-war is actually a colony of individual organisms dependent on each other. A gas-filled bladder keeps them afloat on the ocean’s surface, while a crest acts like a sail dictating the animal’s path. Its hazardous tentacles dangle below.
When a man-o-war stings, its long tentacles release thousands of microscopic venom-injecting capsules called nematocysts. On contact with skin, the nematocysts deliver a toxic chemical cocktail into its victim. The effects of this venom can range from mild to life threatening, but typically include immediate pain that can last upwards of 15 to 20 minutes.
In more severe cases, a sting can trigger chest pain, difficulty breathing, anaphylactic shock, and even death.
Man-o-war treatment follows the same protocol as that of a jellyfish sting. Dr. Jennifer Ping, an emergency medicine physician at Straub Clinic and Hospital in Honolulu, who conducted a study last fall on the efficacy of various jellyfish sting treatments.
“Jellyfish stings are caused by contact with the creature’s tentacle, which triggers millions of stinging cells called nematocytes to pierce the skin and inject venom.” Dr. Ping said. “The best way to deactivate the nematocytes is to get out of the water, remove the tentacles with something other than your bare fingers, and splash vinegar or some other acidic compound on the wound.”
Anything else like alcohol, mineral spirits, even fresh water, can cause the nematocytes to swell and release more venom, worsening the sting.
Their experiments showed that the best way to treat a sting from a man-o-war is to rinse the wound with vinegar to remove any residual stingers or bits of tentacle left on the skin, and then immerse the wound in hot water — ideally at a temperature of 113 degrees F (45 degrees C) — for 45 minutes.
A hot pack will substitute nicely for the hot water, as will a spray called Sting No More, which was developed to treat combat divers under a Department of Defense grant. Even a quick, 30-second wash of diluted vinegar will confer protective effects.
“Since vinegar is already the go-to rinse solution for other jellyfish stings, removing the Physalia caveat will simplify treatment recommendations making them easier for the general public and first responders to remember and apply correctly,” conclude the authors in their study.
The ability of vinegar to suppress the discharge of cnidaria toxin after a sting is likely the result of its pH, or acidic content. But other acidic solutions didn’t confer the same protective effects, and the researchers aren’t entirely sure why. As they investigate further, just remember to pack a bottle of vinegar and a hot pack for that next trip to the beach.
For a current beach report in the Town of Palm Beach call Ocean Rescue: 561-835-4693. Reports are updated each morning.