Groundbreaking study: a sting in the tail for venom research

Australian Institute of Tropical Health & Medicine (AITHM) researchers from James Cook University and Cairns Hospital have made a discovery that could revolutionise the treatment of jellyfish stings, including the deadly box jellyfish.

Associate Professor Jamie Seymour (AITHM, JCU), Philippa Welfare (Cairns Hospital), Dr Mark Little (JCU & Cairns Hospital), and Dr Peter Pereira (JCU & Cairns Hospital) published their paper examining the effect of vinegar on discharged nematocysts of the large box jellyfish (Chironex fleckeri) this month*.

"Our research findings raise concerns that vinegar has the potential to do harm when used as first aid to treat box jellyfish stings," venom expert, Jamie Seymour said.

The box jellyfish injects its venom by nematocysts, which occur primarily on the tentacles, but in some species may be present on the bell (body) as well.

Nematocysts are like little stinging darts that fire whenever the tentacle comes in contact with chemicals on the surface of its prey.

Vinegar is currently recommended as first aid if stung by the large box jellyfish in tropical Australia, and in the USA, for all jellyfish stings.

“Through our in-vitro experiments we discovered that vinegar promotes further discharge of venom from already discharged nematocysts. It may be time to reconsider first-aid options for tropical Australian jellyfish stings," said Dr Mark Little.

Associate Professor Seymour said the current Australian Resuscitation Council (ARC) guidelines state that vinegar should be used for all box jelly fish stings.

“Our research shows this may not be the best course of action and it’s now for the ARC to consider whether its protocol should be changed.”

“We would expect the ARC to consider this to see if the protocols need to be modified.”

“After being stung by a box jellyfish medical aid should be given immediately, with prolonged CPR to maximise the chance of survival,” said Associate Professor Seymour.

The study was funded by the Queensland Emergency Medicine Research Foundation.

QEMRF Chair, Dr David Rosengren said the foundation was pleased to be funding another world-leading study.

“This is a vitally important project and one that demonstrates yet again how Queensland doctors are leading the charge in emergency medicine research,” Dr Rosengren said.

Jellyfish stings are a major and increasing problem worldwide, with numerous envenomations occurring each year, many of which require medical treatment.

Box jellyfish stings - whilst relatively rare - can be fatal, with more than 60 recorded deaths.

For interviews please contact A/Prof Jamie Seymour (James Cook University)

+61 (0)409 343 153 or Lisa Jones +61 (0)7 4232 1311 or email

QEMRF contact: Merrin Jagtman, Sequel Communications (07) 3251 8145 or 0434 313 064.

· Video footage of Associate Professor Jamie Seymour handling box jellyfish can be found at:

· Still images can be found at:

(Please credit for all images)

* Research publication reference: Philippa Welfare, Mark Little, Peter Pereira and Jamie Seymour. An in-vitro examination of the effect of vinegar on discharged nematocysts of Chironex fleckeri. Diving and Hyperbaric Medicine Volume 44 No. 1 March 2014, pp30-34.

Issued: 8 April, 2014