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Spotting and treating a bluebottle sting

Dr Hamish Black

Make sure you're prepared in case you come across the dreaded bluebottle

Bluebottle lying on sand
Bluebottle lying on sand

Around 10,000 bluebottle stings occur each year along the Australian east coast. Given this number, you might have already had your own encounter with a bluebottle – be it walking in ankle-deep water along the shore, or swimming further out among the waves. 

Fortunately, unlike the venom found in tropical box jellyfish species, bluebottle venom is not fatal to humans, says Hamish. 

So, aside from pain, how do you know you’ve been stung by a bluebottle? Hamish says the marine species are “very recognisable” with their distinct blue colour.  

“And if you’re stung, you’ll actually see it because it will be attached to you.” 

Symptoms and what to look out for 

First things first – it will very likely hurt. A bluebottle sting causes immediate sharp pain, and the skin where you have been stung will become red and inflamed. It may also have a whip-like mark from where the tentacle has latched onto your skin. 

“For the majority of people, the pain will have settled within two hours,” Hamish says. “But or a small number the pain will last a few more hours.” 

The skin area where you got stung may have a red-like rash for a while, and you may have joint aches after that.  

Treating a bluebottle sting

You’ll be able to treat most bluebottle stings – especially smaller ones that are not on the face or neck – yourself.  

  1. 1

    Get the person who has been stung out of the water. 

  2. 2

    Remove (flick off with gloved fingers, or tweezers if possible) any tentacles to prevent further stings. Then wash the site with sea water. 

  3. 3

    Apply hot (but not scalding) water to the wound as soon as you can. “Usually this means taking a shower in water as hot as you can you tolerate for 20 minutes,” Hamish says. If you’re not near a shower, immerse the sting area in a bucket of hot water, or use heat packs if available.  

If the site feels itchy or irritated later, a cold pack may relieve those symptoms. Hamish adds that analgesia, such as ibuprofen or paracetamol, can also help.  It’s important that you do not apply vinegar to bluebottle stings as you would for jellyfish stings in tropical areas. This is because vinegar can cause more venom to be released.

When to seek medical treatment  

There are some instances when you should get further help, including for in rare cases where bluebottle stings cause an allergic reaction. You should call 000, or see a lifeguard, if: 

  • the sting covers a large area or is on the face or neck 

  • the person becomes unwell or is having trouble breathing. 

If you experience other symptoms, such as vomiting and abdominal pain, then go and see a doctor, Hamish says.  

Hamish adds that if the analgesia medication doesn’t help and the sting remains very painful after a couple of hours, then head to a doctor. 

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner. 

Dr Hamish Black

Dr Hamish Black

Dr Hamish Black

Dr Hamish Black has been a medical practitioner for more than 25 years. In addition to his role as nib group medical advisor, he still spends two days a week practising as a GP. He has spent many years working in emergency departments and in rural Australia, including a stint with the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Hamish also loves karaoke and dancing (though not that well at either, he says!), with Play that Funky Music by Wild Cherry being his karaoke favourite.