There is a small marine species that has put various parts of Spain on alert. The sighting in Cantabria, Galicia, the Basque Country and Andalusia of specimens of the Portuguese man-of-war, a colony of marine organisms that can cause painful stings with their tentacles, has forced the placement of yellow warning flags on several sandbanks and has put the authorities on guard local. Although it may resemble a jellyfish in appearance, this marine species—Physalia physalis, by its scientific name—is actually a floating colony of organisms that associate for survival and often drift in warmer waters and offshore. Its irritating bite can cause complex skin lesions and, in the worst case, have serious neurotoxic effects in humans.
On the sea surface, the caravel looms about 30 centimeters with a sail-shaped body, like a purplish-blue float that sails at the mercy of winds and currents. Underwater, it shelters its tentacles, which when stretched can measure up to 20 or even 50 meters in length, and which are full of stinging cells that, when in contact with the skin, cause skin lesions. “It is one of the species that causes the most painful bites, although they are not fatal. Cases of deceased people have been described, but they were people with serious underlying pathologies. There is no need to be alarmed”, says Josep Maria Gili, a researcher at the Institute of Marine Sciences (ICM-CSIC) in Barcelona.
It is not the first time that these species appear on the Spanish coasts, although it is not usual. The caravels are oceanic, not coastal, explains Manel Gazo, from the University of Barcelona. “It belongs to the group of siphonophores, like jellyfish, but unlike them, this is a colony where each of the organisms that form it have a function. What is not very normal is to find them near the coast, they are from more pelagic areas”, warns the professor of Marine Zoology. But it happens more and more frequently. In 2018, for example, its presence forced bathing to be prohibited on a handful of Alicante beaches and in 2019, seven people were treated for Portuguese man-of-war stings on a sandy beach in Benidorm.
“When caravels reach adulthood, they are dependent on surface currents and winds. Their adult life cycle coincides with June or early summer and wind currents drag them to the coast. If these waters are similar to those of the open sea, which are warmer due to insolation and more saline, they cross that natural barrier. With climate change, we have less rain and longer summers, coastal waters warm up sooner, and with those winds, the Physalias will arrive earlier, in greater numbers, and more frequently,” reflects Gili. In recent weeks, they have also been sighted on beaches in Cantabria, such as that of Castro Urdiales, and in Galician sandbanks. According to Europa Press, this Thursday several specimens were located on the O Vao beach, in the municipality of Vigo, and the City Council placed the yellow flag and asked the lifeguards to reinforce attention to any new sighting. The O Grove Emergency Service, on the Pontevedra coast, also received an alert from several individuals due to the appearance of these specimens on the Area Grande beach.
“It is one of the species that causes the most painful bites, although they are not fatal. There is no need to be alarmed”
Josep Maria Gili, researcher at the Institute of Marine Sciences (ICM-CSIC) in Barcelona
The concern of the authorities with the presence of this animal colony is associated with the complexity of its bite. The experts consulted state that, in most cases, contact with the tentacles of the Portuguese man-of-war causes a local reaction that, although painful and annoying, resolves in a few days. But if the affected area is larger or the victims are children or elderly people with other underlying ailments, the injury can be complicated. “The local reaction is the most common, but if it affects many parts of the body, it can cause dizziness, nausea, cramps… And, as with all stings, if it happens to allergic people, it can lead to a process anaphylactic (a generalized and potentially serious allergic reaction)”, explains Manuel Iglesias, an emergency doctor at the University Hospital Complex of A Coruña (CHUAC).
The caravel has very long and thick tentacles and the volume of stinging cells on that surface is higher, explains Gili: “The number of stinging cells per tentacle surface is 10 times greater than that of a jellyfish. That is why the virulence is very high. It’s as if, instead of burning your skin with one cigarette, you burn a dozen at a time. The poison acts like burning the skin and causes necrosis. The longer you take to act, the more the poison will have its effect”. Gemma Martín, a dermatologist at the Hospital del Mar in Barcelona, emphasizes that these marine species “have neurotoxins that release histamine, which is what causes an allergic reaction.” “The tentacles whip your skin and it appears as a lash where the stinging substances are deposited and they cause you some kind of drawings on the skin. It is an erythematous lesion (a superficial inflammation of the skin, characterized by red spots) with pain, itching and stinging”, Martín develops.
Depending on the person —children, the elderly and people with underlying pathologies are the most vulnerable— and the size of the lesion or the number of times it has stung, local pictures, which are the usual situations, can be complicated by more serious reactions and symptoms more complex, such as fever, nausea, or even seizures. “It is usually a local reaction because the poison remains at the skin level, but they are systemic, cardiotoxic and neurotoxic poisons, and sequelae can remain, although 97% of cases can be solved at beach level”, Gili points out.
Do not touch, and apply cold and salt water
Before a bite, in any case, you have to act as soon as possible. Iglesias recommends applying “cold and better salt water than fresh.” No vinegar, ammonia or other home remedies, he cautions. Simply cold and wash with plenty of salt water. The stinging cells shoot out, they have a dart inside and, when contacted with them, they shoot that kind of punch and release the toxin. Gili explains that pouring fresh water on it is a way to activate these toxins: “It causes the cells that are there (in the lesion), due to the change in pressure, to shoot up and inject the poison. And the same thing happens with alcohol, vinegar, ammonia…”.
In the same way, to avoid releasing those toxins, Gazo recommends “washing without rubbing so you don’t shoot more darts.” No scratching or scrubbing with a towel or sand. “It works to apply a cold shock, such as ice cubes (wrapped in a bag or a towel, not with direct contact), as well as as an anesthetic, to break down that poison,” says Gili.
Care must be taken when cleaning the area, adds Iglesias, and avoid contact with the caravel or its remains in any way. “The tentacles are very long and can get stuck to you, so you have to remove the pieces of skin.” And he insists: without directly touching the animal. “Unlike jellyfish, the caravel continues to sting, even if it is dead in the sand,” he justifies. The doctor then recommends applying a corticosteroid cream and taking some pain reliever.
If the symptoms disappear after half an hour, it is not necessary to go to the emergency services. “If you have dizziness, cramps, sweating… If there is a change in your general state, then it is better that you go to the doctor,” agrees Iglesias. The warning signs, Martín agrees, are the pictures of “fever, fainting, nausea or vomiting.” “And also if there are a lot of bites you should go to the doctor,” he adds. The CHUAC doctor points out that, although the symptoms of a local reaction disappear after a few days, it is common for a scar to persist for much longer, like a kind of tattoo in the area that came into contact with the tentacles of the caravel.
Gili asks not to forget, in any case, that “the bite is an open wound and must be treated as such to prevent it from becoming infected.” The researcher also warns that, if a person has suffered an injury, he has to avoid “as much as possible a second sting that same summer”, from a caravel or any jellyfish. “We have introduced poison into the body and we have a sensitive defense system. A second sting, even a minor one, can arouse a stronger reaction to the venom and cause anaphylactic shock, ”he says.
Experts in marine biology predict that the presence of the Portuguese man-of-war will be increasingly common on the coast, but Gili points out some good news: “What now reaches the beach, in a few weeks we will no longer have it because the Physalias are at end of his life.” But he asks for caution: “We are lucky that we see the Physalias on the surface and, when that is the case, the beaches have to be closed for a couple of days because the remains of the tentacles, even if they are dying, still sting. It is not necessary to come into contact with the colony”.
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