Portuguese Man O’ War Sting Treatment

Portuguese man-of-war (Physalia physalis)

Portuguese man-of-war (Physalia physalis) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Portuguese Man O’ War is often mistaken for a jellyfish however it is completely different, and the treatment for its extremely painful stings is also different than for that of a jellyfish. In fact, if it were treated in the same way as a jellyfish sting, it would actually make the situation worse.

The portuguese man o’ war can be found along the Windward beaches while the islands are receiving trade winds, and along Leeward beaches while the islands are receiving “Kona Winds”.

The man o’ war is a pelagic colonial hydroid, meaning that it is not a single animal, but a colony or group of four different highly specialized organisms (polyps). These polyps are interdependent on one another for survival.

The body of the man o’ war consists of a gas-filled bladder that contains a high level of methane gas, along with trace amounts of nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide. It is translucent and tinted either shades of pink, blue, or purple. The body grows between 3 to 12 inches long and may extend above the water by as much as 6 inches. This bladder has a crest on top of it that is used as a sail so that the wind can push the man o’ war across the ocean like a tiny sail boat.

Beneath the gas-filled body hang clusters of polyps containing tentacles which may reach up to over 100 feet in length when stretched out. These polyps are of three specialized types, each having a specific function. The function of the dactylozooid polyps’ is detecting and capturing prey, gonozooid polyps’ function is reproduction, and gastrozooid polyps’ function is breaking down the captured prey for food.

Each of the polyps cannot survive on their own, and the man o’ war cannot survive missing one of the polyp organisms. Their only chance for survival is their bond with each other.

Tentacles of the dactylozooid’s contain tiny nematocystic (coiled thread-like) structures that can paralyze small fish and other prey that come into contact with them. The gastrozooid’s then cover the prey and start digesting it. The man o’ war will eat basically anything that comes into contact with their stinging tentacles. As the man o’ war drifts across the surface of the ocean carried by the wind its tentacles are constantly search through the water underneath it for food.

Muscles in each tentacle contract and drag prey into range of the digestive polyps, the gastrozooids, which, acting like small mouths, consume and digest the food by phagocytosis – by secreting a full range of enzymes that variously break down proteins, carbohydrates and fats. The prey consists mostly of small crustaceans, small fish, algae and other members of the surface plankton which the man-of-war ensnares in its entangling, stinging nematocystic threads.

The sting of the man o’ war is extremely painful to humans and can cause very serious effects including fever, shock, and interference with pulmonary and respiratory functions. Where ever its blue tentacles have touched bare skin a red whip-like wavy welts which are very painful. These welts can last for many hours and can reappear up to 4 or 6 weeks after the incident due to the release of histamine, bradykinin, kallikrein or acetylcholine resulting in bleeding within the skin from capillary and venous vasodilation and occasional leukocyte infiltration.

To treat a Portuguese Man O’ War sting follow these simple steps:

  1. Immediately flush the affected area with fresh water to remove any unfired nematocysts from the skin. Contrary to what is taught in folklore, local practice, and even some papers on sting treatment, DO NOT use vinegar, urine, ammonia,meat tenderizer, sodium bicarbonate, boric acid, lemon juice, fresh water, steroid cream, alcohol, cold packs, papaya, hydrogen peroxide, or anything else other than water to flush the affected area as it may cause the remaining nematocysts to fire injecting more toxin and could also lead to infection. There is absolutely no scientific evidence to suggest that any of these home remedies will disable further stinging and venom discharge.
  2. Using a gloved hand, stick, or other such tool, pick off any remaining pieces of tentacle from the skin.
  3. Immediately flush the affected area with fresh water once again.
  4. Once the area has been flushed clean with water, apply ice packs to the affected area to relieve the pain.
  5. Immediate medical attention may be necessary as the stings may induce anaphylactic shock.

About RC Anderson, Ph.D.
PADI Master SCUBA Diver, Emergency Medical Technician, Diving Medical Technician, Basic Life Support Instructor/Trainer, Advanced First Aid & Wilderness Emergency Care Instructor/Trainer, PADI Dive Master Candidate, and Kayak Diver from Honolulu, Hawaii.

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