Sunday, March 8, 2009

When Thimble Jelly Fish Attack

"Sea Bather's Eruption" - it sounds as disgusting as it is.  It's the reason I abruptly stopped blogging in Cozumel on my last dive trip in August, and I'm just now getting around to posting the photos six months later. 

If you've never experienced Sea Bather's Eruption, count your blessings.  Click on the title of the post to read a dermatology site's thorough explanation, but to sum up: it's an allergic reaction to the stings of tiny jellyfish larvae.  These jellyfish larvae tend to be incredibly tiny and omnipresent in Cozumel in August, and they sting like the devil.  Apparently, not all people are allergic, but I developed a rather inconvenient and incredibly painful skin rash the first day of diving on a ten day trip.  Having had no prior experience with this condition, I found myself hitting several different pharmacies looking for answers and buying medications. I even tried a few folklore home remedies I heard about from locals and was close to seeking out a Mayan witch doctor for the antidote to what seemed more like an ancient curse than a simple skin condition.

I'm including a photo of my rash covered arm, and as you can see, it's covered in raised, red, inflamed bumps. It's hard to see but my neck was also extremely red and inflamed. 

I was told on day two of this vacation that I would need to stay out of the sun.  A pharmacist assured me that my skin condition was sun poisoning.  Another informed me that I had scabies. A lifeguard told me to pour vinegar all over myself and scrape my skin with a credit card or a razor.  The only thing more absurd is that I actually did it and it actually helped (somewhat).

So I hope this particular post helps someone because no one should have to needlessly endure a dive vacation fraught with skin rashes, hideous itches, misdiagnoses, benadryl hangovers, long sleeves, etc.  Here's the deal: the dang things attacked me at my most vulnerable point - the neck of my wetsuit.  Teeny tiny transparent jellyfish - the size of thimbles - were floating near the surface of the water.  I paid them very little attention. I felt a sting, but I was enjoying my dive so much on that first day that I didn't really think about it.  The site of the sting was red, but that wasn't the issue.  That night a rash covered my arms, chest, legs. It looked like I had been simultaneously been sunburned and attacked by mosquitoes.  So, I used aloe and insect bite stuff which was entirely pointless and didn't relieve anything.  I bought a long sleeve shirt which I wore for the remainder of the trip while I mostly sat in the shade.  

Fortunately, I was able to dive a few more times.  But I had to stay in the shade of the boat when I wasn't in the water, and I must have spent $200 on medications that didn't work.  Here's what happens: Jellyfish sting with barbs. Those barbs get stuck into your skin and will keep stinging you long after you're out of the water. If you scratch, more venom will be released. Vinegar cuts the sting of the venom, and scraping the skin with a razor will cut the barbs out, at least at the skin's surface.  Benadryl will arrest the skin rash, but in my case, it was either too late, or it just had to run its course.  The pharmacy told me to get prednisone, but I didn't want to take it without a doctor's supervision.  The three most important things I've learned: (1) get out of the water if you see them (2) pour vinegar on your skin immediately if you've been stung, don't put freshwater on it first (3) wash your wetsuit and swimsuits thoroughly in vinegar and in soapy water before you wear them again as the barbs might get stuck. And if you do get stung and you're allergic, your whole body might break out, not just the site of the sting so be prepared to take benadryl or prednisone.  If you're severely allergic in general, talk to your allergist before scuba diving, especially in the Caribbean in May - Sept.

I'm going to buy this product:
Has anyone tried it?  Does it work? 
This Sea Bather's Eruption stuff was only identified in 1949 according to Wikipedia, and it seems like there's a lot of misinformation out there about it.  The best bet is to avoid the water if these little demons are visible.  


Diver Daisy said...

yep, can't beat the locals when it comes to knowing what to do! I've also heard them prescribe rum, and not for drinking.

seeing a live witch doctor would have been so much fun and could have been the highlight of your trip :) hehe

no lie, my word verification for this comment is "shetuff" - too funny

reuben said...

Glad you didn't have a "sever" reaction, have seen some pretty bad ones. We used to call this a "Sea Rash" when I was younger and would go surfing, didn't realize it was from tiny little jellies.

The 3 recommendations you give are spot on, especially the rinsing with salt water NOT fresh water. Also, one of the most commonly recommended folk remedies, "Pee on it, you'll be fine" is actually not recommended... besides just being gross, it can cause an infection and does nothing for the stings. Throw a small plastic bottle of vinegar in your save a dive kit and your gold!

Snorkel Family said...

I live in Southeast Florida and we get "sea lice" often. You do not have to see the thimble jellyfish to be affected. The larval form is enough to cause the same problems, no matter how shallow water you delve into.

I have heard, however,that vinegar can cause the stingers to fire even more. So that advice is "iffy".

I have been told by a local that Selson Blue dandruff shampoo is wonderful. Apply, leave on.

Also, another friend whose daughter was particularly susceptible told me... "Go to Walgreen's, find Shuttle WORKS! better than calamine!"

My daughter and I have a slight case after snorkeling this past weekend. I have ordered Sea Safe (or is it Safe Sea?) by mail from a dive shop. I have read good things, but experts say that it is not good enough to prevent such stings. Even the site claims "most of the time" it works.

Anything is better than nothing -- it should be here this weekend and we'll test it while snorkeling. It is the only "preventative" I have found other than staying out of the water March - August, when sea lice are most present.

Anonymous said...

That Shuttle Lotion stuff is the best stuff I ever used I wont go on a boat or even to the beach with out it!!!

Jean said...

So, we were snorkeling off Cozumel, felt jelly fish biting, but my rash didn't appear until five days later!
Thanks for the insight, I hope it runs it course soon. Being in NH I need to wear warm clothes. This all just happened, 12/29/09, rashes showed up 01/03/10.

TwoTank said...

Oh, Jean! I sympathize. It's so painful and uncomfortable.

I went to the dermatologist when I returned, and they confirmed it was jellyfish stings. Naturally, by the time I got to the doctor, the rash had mostly disappeared. But I had for about 10 days total. Very unsightly, and not fun! However, once I was in the water, the amazing sights in Cozumel were more than enough to take my mind off it.

Hope you enjoyed your diving there!

Thanks everyone for the comments! I'll definitely check out the Shuttle Lotion.

Anonymous said...

HI there...just got back from Cozumel and I ascended a dive in a school of thimble jellyfish which I thought was odd! About 2 hours later I had painful inflamation on areas of my body contanied within my short wetsuit. I had no idea what it was...I actually thought it was a chemical reaction to pool chemicals since I was hanging on the side of a pool for about an hour after the dive. I put cold compresses on the area and had a cold shower, but isn't what oyou shoudl do even though it help some. I also used aloe and solarcaine...if I had know to take benedryl I would have. The swelling is hard and painful and taking it's time to disappear...probably a week before it will be gone. As well, I had to migraine headaches on the same day as being stung! Not a common thing for me especailly on vacation.
I'm not sure how to avoid that poison from entering the wetsuit because that is teh worst area for me. Oh, be sure to wash your wetsuit with soap and vinegar to get the point out!

Pinkrhino said...

I got bitten while diving inn great barrier reef in Australia in the summer (Jan). Yeah the other side of the world and another ocean completely!! The rash appeared on my stomach every night but subsided during the day. I thought it was bed bugs on the liveaboard boat and I complained like crazy on the feedback form. I showed friends pics afterwards and they suggested it was "sea lice". It sort of made sense because I exchanged bunks with my bf and he never got bites. We also had to wear full jelly fish suits. Where u got the rash was where I had my weightbelt tight on top of the jellyfish suit under my bcd.

Anonymous said...

The best product for sea lice stings is Shuttle Lotion, made by a company in Miami. It's hard to find, but it works immediately.

Anonymous said...

god damn thimble jelly fish, im on a crab boat fishing with some asians and some other guy. I thought it was herpies:0 lol thank god i looked on your page. by the way im in haida gwaii british columbia and its apparently from the sea lice around here. i just cant wait to get home and take care of this annoying rash=/

divemastersher said...

It's the larvae that sting and you can't see them. If you see the thimbles, they're adults and they don't sting. In Roatan Honduras we feel them from Feb. to April. They're just doing what they're designed to do, it's not personal and it's natural. Protect yourself and don't blame them, would you blame any creature for doing what it's supposed to do??