SEA THIMBLES AND SEA LICE
It’s that time of year again…the warming waters bring calmer seas for long boating days, but also hurricanes and another not so pleasant thing to be on the lookout for; “Sea Thimbles”. Although the name sounds quite cute, these creatures are anything but.
These tiny thimble-size jellyfish (Linuche unguiculate) pack an uncomfortable surprise for those unaware. Not having any other means of defending themselves, they are equipped with stinging cells.
The adults are mottled or brown in color and are approximately the size of a US/Bahamian quarter. Their larvae, commonly known as “Sea Lice” are equally irritating. Even smaller, about the size of a pin head, they resemble clouds of salt and pepper floating in the water.
Encountering either the larvae or adults on your day at the beach or out in the boat can ruin your day if you are not careful. Generally found in Bahamian waters from spring through the early summer, in various stages, they can make swimming and enjoying the waters quite uncomfortable.
Some people are just more sensitive to their “sting” than others. Making it worse is if you wear long board shorts, swim in a t-shirt or one-piece swimsuits—any loose clothing they can get stuck in. Generally, while you are swimming or floating in the water they will merely brush along your skin with no issue (unless you are very sensitive). It’s when they get “stuck” in clothing and get aggravated, they can get very irritating.
Although your first instinct is to take a hot fresh water shower, this is one of the worst things you can do. The fresh water triggers them to release their stinging cells, making an already uncomfortable situation, more painful. As difficult as it might be, you need to rinse off with salt water—free of more pests. You also need to remove any garments and wash them thoroughly with hot water, detergent and heat drying completely before wearing them again. If the stinging cells are infested in the fabric, you might be better off to just throw out the swimwear. It is a fact that the stinging cells can remain in clothing even after it has dried. So care must be taken.
Do NOT rub your skin with a towel—this will make matters much worse. Pat dry with a towel instead.
Antihistamines, hydrocortisone creams and ointments, colloidal oatmeal baths, calamine lotion and other anti-itching solutions may help after exposure when red itchy rashes and small blisters start to occur. Ice can also help relieve the pain and itching. In adults, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen or aspirin may help. Some people will experience fever, chills, even nausea; especially small children. Severe reactions are rare but do happen and require medical attention Reaction time can very with exposure, but generally you will see symptoms within minutes to hours after exposure and they can last several days to weeks. Symptoms are not contagious.
Google treatments and you will see all sorts of other treatment suggestions including using vinegar, rubbing alcohol, meat tenderizer, even urine. But some of these may actually increase the release of toxin and aggravate the symptoms.
So what can you do to minimize your chance of having an itchy time when these jellyfish or their larvae are present in the water?
According to several articles, again found on Google in regard to this topic, health officials in the US suggest wearing a tight-fitting wetsuit, like those used by divers. Women are advised to wear two-piece swimsuits as opposed to one-piece suits to reduce the risk of a more severe reaction if the creatures are encountered. Some articles suggest topical sunscreens that can prevent the skin from being penetrated (and there are certain commercial lotions that claim this).
The balancing act appears to be to minimize the time the organisms are in proximity to your skin—and keeping them from getting caught in any clothing you may be wearing. Research also supports that swimmers and snorkelers are more adversely affected, the theory being, that these creatures are more concentrated near the surface of the water—especially near beaches or where currents trap them.
So be aware of your surroundings. In the Bahamas, we don’t fly the purple warning flags like they do in the US to let you know they are present at the beaches. But with a little preparation and knowledge, hopefully these creatures with the cute name, won’t ruin your time in or around the water this time of year.