The Sting of Summer: Be Prepared, From Bites to Burns

Don't let your summer fun be spoiled by stings, bites and burns.

ByABC News
May 31, 2011, 12:39 PM

June 1, 2011— -- For those who vacationed on the Florida coastline this Memorial Day, the summer season launched with a bang, or more specifically, with hundreds of stings. Because of steady Atlantic winds, this past holiday weekend the beaches were swamped with reddish-colored jellyfish, known as mauve stingers, resulting in more than 800 reported stings among the beachgoers.

Though summer has not officially started, the Florida jellyfish debacle is a sharp reminder of the many stings, burns, nips, bites and rashes that arise during the summer months ahead.

ABC news spoke with pediatricians, dermatologists and emergency medicine experts to pull together a guide to preventing, identifying and treating the various ills that can accompany your summer fun.

When Jellyfish Attack

Although there are many different species of jellyfish throughout the coastal United States, the resulting sting is largely the same. When you come into contact with a jellyfish, either underwater or when they're beached on land, small barbs in the tentacles catch on your skin and cause red welts.

If you think you've been stung by a jellyfish (and given how painful a jellyfish sting is, you usually know it), the best thing to do is rinse the sting in saltwater, not freshwater, says Dr. Lee Winans, head of the emergency room at Lawnwood Regional Medical Center in Fort Pierce, Fla.

"The little barbs are packets of poison, and if you use freshwater, it will cause them to rupture and make the reaction worse," he says.

Rubbing or patting the area can also cause these packets to rupture, so take a shell or credit card and scrape the barbs off the area while rinsing in the saltwater, says Dr. James Schmidt, a pediatric emergency medicine physician at Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters in Norfolk, Va.

There are a lot of old wives' tales or home remedies concerning jellyfish stings. Some people say you should pee on the sting, others say to use vinegar or meat tenderizer on them. These remedies can be somewhat helpful because they neutralize the jellyfish venom to an extent, says Winans, but in the ER doctors would use ammonia to do that.

If the stings cover a large portion of the body, systemic reactions such as nausea, vomiting and breathing problems can occur in some people and these symptoms should be checked out by a medical professional right away. Otherwise, use topical hydrocortisone cream and hot or cold compresses (whichever feels best).

Sunburn is a form of inflammation, so when a significant area of skin is inflamed, the body reacts to the inflammation with flu-like symptoms, says Dr. Neil Korman, a dermatologist at U.H. Case Medical Center.

It is most dangerous in the very young and the very old, and if acute sunburn is accompanied by vomiting, you should seek medical attention as rehydration with IV fluids may be necessary, Winans says.

The Bite from the Mystery Bug

Spiders, bees and chiggers -- oh my! For most people, summer months mean more hours spent outside in the woods, the grass, or out on the beach, but vacationers aren't the only species to flood the outdoor arena. Various members of the insect animal kingdom will be out in full force this summer, so it's important to know which pests are merely pesky, and which ones may be cause for worry.

Bees and hornet stings are usually not problematic unless you are allergic to their sting or if multiple stings are received at once. Wheezing or excessive swelling around the face or site of sting should be checked out by a doctor immeidately, especially if it seems the person is having an allergic reaction to the sting, says Winans.

As for spider bites, most are harmless, but a few species of poisonous spiders can cause more serious reactions. In the southern U.S., brown recluse spiders can result in large, painful bites that, left untreated, can lead to loss of a limb. Unlike normal spider bites, which get better over the course of a few days, poisonous bites will only get worse and the skin around the bite can start to die, says Winans.

"Recluse and black widow," which are native to Florida, "bites will be quite painful, and the pain will migrate to other parts of the body," he says. "The bites can turn yellow and look almost like an egg white with a bubble," he says. They should be seen by a medical professional immediately.

Chigger, mosquito and fire ant bites, while painful and itchy, are benign. They usually appear as small itchy bumps, or in the case of ant bites, small pus-filled bumps. "Put topical over-the-counter steroid cream on bites, but try not to itch them, that will only open them up to a possible infection," Winans says.

If you remove a tick from you and experience these symptoms following (even without the rash), see a doctor to get tested for Lyme disease, doctors say, because if not treated with antibiotics, Lyme can cause neurological, joint and cardiac problems over time, says Dr. Korman of U.H. Case Medical Center.

To avoid getting bit, walk in the center of trails and avoid walking through high brush. Also, check the body for ticks after hiking, especially warm areas such as scalp, groin and armpits.

Rash Reaction

Rashes can result for a number of reasons -- from an allergic reaction to fabric to a poisonous plant. The most common rashes seen by doctors during the summer are heat rash, swimmer's itch and rashes from poisonous plants such as poison ivy, sumac and oak.

Swimmer's itch consists of many small, itchy, slightly painful red bumps that are usually noticed following a swim in the ocean. Usually, the rash is just another form of a jellyfish sting and results when microscopic jellyfish larva get caught in the fabric of one's swimsuit, says Schmidt. Swimmer's itch can also be caused by other parasites present in fresh or saltwater. The rash is benign and can be treated with topical hydrocortisone cream but will otherwise go away on its own, doctors say.

Heat rash is not from contact with any plant or animal but merely the product of skin irritation in damp or sandy conditions, such as wearing a wet bathing suit over an extended period of time. The red, raised, itchy bumps are sometimes referred to as "prickly heat" and occur when the sweat glands become clogged, says Korman.

Rashes from poison oak, poison ivy or poison sumac are par for the course for summertime excursions into wooded areas, and while annoying, are usually not serious. Approximately 85 percent of the population will develop an allergic reaction if exposed to poison ivy, oak or sumac, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

The itchy, blistering rash usually develops 12 to 72 hours after exposure and can be treated with calamine lotion and time. If swelling becomes serious, affects breathing and causes eyes to swell shut, seek medical attention immediately.

For more information on where different poison plants can be found and how to identify them, visit the American Academy of Dermatology's website.