Human Health

How to Treat a Jellyfish Sting

Li, A., Yue, Y., Li, R., Yu, C., Wang, X., Liu, S., Xing, R., Li, P., Zhang, Q., & Yu, H. (2023). Fucoidan may treat jellyfish dermatitis by inhibiting the inflammatory effect of jellyfish venom. International Journal of Biological Macromolecules, 253, 127449–127449. 


Nemopilema nomurai. Image source: Totti via Wikimedia Commons


The Deadly Nomura’s Jellyfish

While a jellyfish sting sounds like a rare affliction, an estimated 150 million people have suffered one in their lifetime and the numbers continue to rise as jellyfish populations grow. Depending on the type of sting, jellyfish can be extremely detrimental, causing skin damage, shock, or even death to their human victims. 

One result of a jellyfish sting is jellyfish dermatitis, an affliction whereby the venom causes redness, swelling, and blisters at the affected area. Jellyfish dermatitis results from a sting by the species Nemopilema nomurai, commonly referred to as Nomura’s jellyfish, a large scyphozoan (class of ‘true jellyfish’) found in Asia. Despite how common jellyfish dermatitis is, especially as N. nomurai jellyfish blooms (events in which significant population growth occurs) become more frequent, there is no known treatment for this particular skin condition. Researchers in China therefore sought to test a potential remedy to jellyfish dermatitis by investigating the application of a known skin disease treatment, a polysaccharide (or chain of carbohydrates) called Fucoidan.

Jellyfish Bloom in Mar Menor. Image source: Stephanie Booth via Flickr Creative Commons 


Using Algae to Treat Jellyfish Stings?!

Fucoidan is a carbohydrate derived from algae and has previously shown to be an effective treatment for dermatitis and other skin afflictions as an anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and immune booster. But how effective is it in treating jellyfish dermatitis? And if it can treat dermatitis, how does it work?

The researchers performing this study tested their theory by collecting N. nomurai specimens from Laoshan Bay in China. They then removed their tentacles in order to extract their nematocysts (stinging cells) and venom to inject into their research subjects. 

The study was set up with a control and treatment group, each consisting of three male mice. Each mouse was injected with N. nomurai nematocyst venom (NnNV), either combined with fucoidan or not. The researchers further separated the treatment group into those that received fucoidan treatment immediately, and those who received treatment only after showing symptoms of jellyfish dermatitis. The mice were injected both subcutaneously (in their skin) and intramuscularly (in their muscle) to test how the fucoidan treated both internal and external symptoms of jellyfish dermatitis. Both groups received treatment twice a day, six hours apart, for five days. The mice were then monitored for external changes in hair growth, scab formation, and skin inflammation; and internal changes in NnNV myotoxicity (toxicity to muscles).


The First Proven Treatment for Jellyfish Venom 

The results showed that, as expected, the group of mice that had been treated with fucoidan following NnNV injection had a reduced number of inflammatory cells, less skin crusting, and less hair loss as compared with the group that received no fucoidan treatment. This indicated that fucoidan was effective in preventing the spread and development of jellyfish dermatitis, diminishing the hair loss and scab growth symptoms, and reducing inflammation. Internally, the swelling in the mice’s muscles resulting from the myotoxicity of the NnNV was reduced in the treatment group. This is an important finding in not only treating jellyfish stings, but also other attacks by venomous animals.

Despite the significance of this finding, further research must be done to understand the specific mechanism by which fucoidan interacts with NnNV and apply it to other venoms or symptoms of jellyfish stings. Future studies should also determine how the treatments aid humans in particular in fighting jellyfish dermatitis.


But Let’s Not Wait…

Jellyfish blooms typically occur during the warmer months when higher water temperatures quicken the sexual maturation of jellyfish. As sea temperatures continue to warm throughout the year at alarming rates due to climate change, jellyfish blooms become even more abundant and pose a public health risk. This is especially a threat to marine workers and tourists in Asia who may not know the conditions of the unfamiliar waters they are swimming in. So, as exciting and novel this study is in offering a way to prevent further pain and damage after a jellyfish sting, it is also important to be proactive about avoiding them before they happen. When swimming in a new area, try to learn about the local conditions and continue to make smart environmental decisions that reduce the acceleration of climate change.

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