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I still remember the very first time I got stung by a Portuguese man-o-war. I was six, wearing my favorite polka-dot one piece, and having the time of my life. I splashed in the open shoreline at our family’s ritual weekend hangout, when a sudden stinging sensation near my ankles sent a loud wail through my tiny body. Tears began to fall, and so did that sunny, carefree world I indulged in just moments ago.
For those of you lucky ones who get stung, I promise it won’t be as dramatic as my experience.
Man-o-war can be recognized by its blue gas-filled “bubble” and long tentacle(s). There may be multiple, depending on its maturity. In Australia and Florida, a man-o-war’s tentacles can be up to 30-feet long; however, Hawaii has a far less dangerous relative. Man-o-war that wash ashore in the islands will have tentacles up to six-feet, and don’t worry, their sting isn’t fatal. The blue bubble is actually called the bladder and can be as tiny as your pinky nail or as large as a walnut. This is what helps it float along the ocean surface.
If the trades are a blowin’ in Hawaii, then stay away from any windward side beach. That’s when large numbers of them get pushed to shore and sting anyone in their way. I’ve read several methods to treating a man-o-war sting – from rubbing the area with meat tenderizer to washing it with seawater. But the best way to treat a sting, according to my lifeguard friends, is to rinse with warm water.
Also, be sure to remove any tentacles with a towel or stick. You can put aloe vera gel, Benadryl cream or hydrocortisone cream to alleviate the pain and itching. But if the victim is showing signs of dizziness, difficulty breathing or nausea, then get medical attention immediately. This could mean that the person is allergic to the venom.
The name man-o-war comes from a 16th-century armed sailing ship. Portuguese man-o-war, as it’s more commonly called in Hawaii, gets its name from its resemblance to the Portuguese version of that ship at full sail.