Experts debunk popular bluebottle sting remedy - but not the one you think

While most of know that urine won't really help heal your blue bottle sting, another popular treatment still holds sway, but it really shouldn't.

As bluebottles arrive en masse on our shores this month, experts have spoken out against a popular treatment of stings that is still frequently recommended.

Vinegar has long been heralded as a remedy for bluebottle injuries because it was thought to neutralise stinging cells, but as it turns out, it's a big no-no.

“While vinegar is recommended for tropical species such as Irukandji, for the bluebottle the best treatment is hot water for 20 minutes,” University of New South Wales senior lecturer Dr Amandine Schaeffer told Yahoo News Australia.

Bluebottle floating in water.
Predicting a surge of bluebottles - also called Portuguese man o' war - is not easy, but Aussie researchers are inching closer to developing a tool that could potentially do just that. Source: Getty

Vinegar is often used for some types of jellyfish because of its acidity, but was discovered to only work well in inhibiting stinging cell discharge in box jellies and Irukandjis, according to the CSIRO. They also point out on their website that in some bluebottles, vinegar can actually make things worse by stimulating discharge and increasing a person’s pain. “For this reason, it is not recommended for confirmed blue bottle stings,” the CSIRO said.

To pee or not to pee

Surf Life Saving Australia’s Dr Jaz Lawes, who works alongside Schaeffer as a lead researcher for BluebottleWatch, also discouraged the use of vinegar as a remedy for bluebottle stings and at the same time debunked thy myth of another “recommended” treatment – urine. “Definitely not recommended to use vinegar or urine,” she stressed.

The CSIRO previously reported that because urine can either be acidic or alkaline, the effects could vary, stating that it is only about 25 per cent effective if acidic and if alkaline, may stimulate discharge.

“The bluebottle floats at the ocean’s surface and trails a long, stinging tentacle – sometimes as long as three metres below the surface. The tentacle (dactylozooid) contains lots of ‘nematocysts’, or stinging cells, which are like mini-harpoons all wound up and ready to discharge in case of finding some food – or accidentally someone’s arm or leg!” Lawes explained. “The stinging cells (nematocysts) leave a dotted red line where the tentacle has touched your skin, and can appear ‘beaded’ with lots of little spots along the affected area.”

Bluebottles have long been a fixture of the Australian beach-going experience. Source: Getty
Bluebottles have long been a fixture of the Australian beach-going experience. Source: Getty

“The best thing to do is pull the tentacles off and rinse with seawater first and then hot water/shower – as hot as you can stand it – for 20 minutes,” she said. “For more minor stings, and if there is no hot water, please use ice – although that is not the primary treatment recommended.”

‘More annoying than dangerous'

Bluebottles, which were only recently recognised as the same species as the Portuguese man o’ war found in the Atlantic, are not jellyfish and are one of several species of marine stingers in Australia.

Up to 30,000 bluebottle stings are reported in Australia every year – mostly in the eastern states, and they also account for most of the one in six Aussies stung my marine stingers. However, bluebottle stings are generally more annoying than dangerous, Lawes explained.

“While not lethal, bluebottles can deliver intensely painful stings which, albeit rarely, can induce anaphylactic and systemic physiological responses – that can really hurt, endanger the patient, and take several hours to subside,” she said. Lawes however, also noted that they are increasingly hearing anecdotal reports of more traumatic stings where people end up in hospital. “While uncommon, these rare, more intense responses have been described to involve immediate shooting pains that cause cramping or clenching of muscles – even making it hard to swim back to shore.”

Bluebottle in the water (left) and on the sand (right).
Luckily, bluebottle season is not as bad this summer. Source: Getty

Thankfully bluebottle season this year has been too bad, according to Schaeffer. “This 2023/24 season has been relatively quiet so far, with no massive event yet around Sydney. It is tricky to predict what the rest of the summer will bring, as the arrival of bluebottles depends on winds and ocean currents, as well as on the population dynamics,” she said. “However, right now, the bluebottle population we see in Sydney is quite small, hence most likely less dangerous, with smaller tentacles and less stinging cells, than full grown ones.”

Bluebottle season falls between September and March, but usually peaks around October and February, Schaeffer noted but explained that this differs from year to year. “There is quite a strong variability from one year to another. Note, we also see a few bluebottles in most winters, but not huge swarms.”

Recommended treatment

Apart from applying hot water, Surf Life Saving also recommends the following first aid treatment:

  • Do not allow rubbing of the sting area.

  • Adherent blue tentacles may be seen after a sting and are distinctive for Physalia physalis. Remove any adhering tentacles

  • Rinse the area well with sea water (not freshwater).

  • If the pain is unrelieved by heat, or if hot water is not available, apply cold packs or ice in a dry plastic bag.

  • Send for medical aid if symptoms persist.

Schaeffer also recommended that beachgoers also look at the safety tips recommended by the group.

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