A beach holiday to Australia almost turned deadly for a young UK couple after an Irukandji jellyfish sting left a fit and healthy young man in excruciating pain, and unable to breathe.
Savannah Callaghan, 23, and James Soale, 22, were visiting from London earlier this month and decided to stay in Cairns, in Far North Queensland for a few days, stopping for a swim at Palm Cove beach.
Aware of the jellyfish and crocodile warnings in the area, Ms Callaghan said they chose to swim in a netted area where they were told it would be safe.
"There must have been about 20-25 people swimming in this area," Ms Callaghan told Yahoo News Australia.
"There was a lifeguard controlling it and everything, and it was made to feel very, very safe, no one was swimming outside of the net."
The couple were swimming in "thigh depth" water when Mr Soale felt a sharp sting across his left forearm, admitting he didn't think anything of it at first.
Mr Soale said he got out of the water hoping the pain would die down but instead it intensified, so he notified the lifeguards.
"I think after about 30 seconds I went straight back up to [the lifeguards] saying I had tight chest pains and was struggling to breathe," he recalled.
"After that, it was just excruciating pain in my lower back and they called the ambulance."
Told to expect the 'worst' pain of his life
In the 10 minutes before an ambulance arrived, Ms Soale was close to passing out, finding it harder to breathe and the pain getting steadily worse.
"[The head lifeguard] turned to me at one point and said, 'you're going to experience probably some of the worst pain of your life'," he said.
Ms Callaghan said he then began showing symptoms of 'Irukandji syndrome', which included feeling impending doom — an effect from the jellyfish's venom.
"James was just like shouting, screaming and saying he felt like he was gonna die, which was traumatic to watch," she said.
At the hospital, doctors found some of the Irukandji's venom had leaked into Mr Soale's heart, with the main cause of concern that he could go into cardiac arrest.
He was sent home 10 hours after being admitted but had to return to the hospital the following day when he once again was struggling to breathe.
"Because the heartbeat is going so quickly [after being stung] my blood pressure skyrocketed," he explained. "Luckily, it was no lasting damage."
How to prevent marine stinger injury
Almost two weeks after the sting, Mr Soale said he's on the road to recovery and it hasn't put the couple off returning to Australia in the future to tick some things off their bucket list they couldn't do this time.
"I just have to come back another year to skydive I think," Mr Soale, with the couple adding they'll be wearing stinger suits to swim from now on.
According to the Whitsunday Regional Council, there are only around 100 Irukandji stings each year in Queensland that require medical treatment.
Surf Life Saving Queensland says marine stinger enclosures are designed to stop box jellyfish, but Irukandji can still get through. Protective gear, such as stinger suits, is still recommended to reduce the risk of being stung.
The website recommends leaving the water if an individual is stung, dousing the area in vinegar and seeking medical attention if serious symptoms appear.
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