Rare giant bluebottle could be behind spate of stinger hospital cases, expert believes
A rare giant bluebottle with many tentacles could have reappeared in Australian waters. (Supplied: Lisa-ann Gershwin)
An Australian stinger expert believes a rare, giant bluebottle with multiple tentacles and a more severe sting could be responsible for a spate of emergency department presentations for suspected bluebottle encounters in Queensland.
- The common bluebottle unlikely to cause so many hospital cases, Dr Gershwin said
- The rare stinger only appears once every 10 to 30 years
- It is the size of an adult human hand with multiple stinging tentacles
Australian Marine Stinger Advisory Service director Lisa-ann Gershwin said this stinger belonged to the same family as the bluebottle and Portuguese man-of-war and was last seen in Australian waters in 2013.
“It tends to appear only every 10 to 30 years,” Dr Gershwin said.
Cairns man Mitch Keller said his five-year-old son was stung by one of the giant bluebottles last winter and suffered excruciating pain.
“The bulbous bubble part was the width of my hand, it would have been nine to 10 centimetres wide from one end to the other,” Mr Keller said.
Cairns father Mitch Keller said his five-year-old son was stung by this 10cm bluebottle at Mission Beach. (Supplied)
He said his family was on holidays at Mission Beach and had noticed bluebottles on the shore.
“There had been a strong westerly which blew up some bluebottles and we hadn’t really seen them this far north,” he said.
“My young fella, he picked up the biggest one we have ever seen. It stung the back of his hand.”
Mr Keller said the pain was so excruciating, he decided to take his son to the closest hospital.
“He was screaming and we were driving to hospital but he seemed to be coming out of it on the way. We ended up turning around before he got to hospital.”
Dr Gershwin confirmed the bluebottle that stung Mr Keller’s son was the rare giant bluebottle that she suspected had caused severe reactions.
More than 9,000 treated for suspected bluebottle stings
Of those 23 people attended by paramedics, eight were taken to hospital for further treatment — seven on the Sunshine Coast and one on the Gold Coast.
The Sunshine Coast Hospital and Health Service said there had been 35 presentations to emergency departments related to bluebottle stings since the start of summer.
However, Dr Simon Jensen from Sunshine Coast University Hospital said he had not seen proof the giant bluebottles were to blame.
“None of the photos that I’ve seen or the descriptions from patients match that particular species,” he said.
There has also been a spate of Irukandji jellyfish stings in recent days.
Dr Gershwin said she did not believe the number of presentations was due to people having an allergic reaction to the common bluebottle and suspected something completely different might be at play.
“These cases make you wonder if a different species is to blame,” she said.
“That doesn’t sound so extraordinary when you consider we already know of another species native to eastern Australia.
“It’s very rare, we normally only get reports of it every 10 to 30 years, but it is a much larger species than the typical common bluebottle.”
Dr Gershwin said she had not heard of the common bluebottle causing hospitalisation. (ABC News: Emma Siossian)
Surf Lifesaving Queensland operations co-ordinator, Jason Argent, said crews on the beach hadn’t seen any evidence of a potential new species.
“From time to time we do, and depending on the conditions, sometimes there’s some smaller bluebottles come in and sometimes there’s a little bit bigger ones,” he said.
“However at this point in time we just treat them as a normal bluebottle and we don’t see any real difference.”
Dr Gershwin said the giant bluebottle-like stinger had not yet been classified.
“It is of the genus Physalia, which is the same as the bluebottle and Portuguese man-of-war,” she said.
“It is more like the size of the length of your hand and it has multiple main fishing tentacles compared to only one of the common little guy.
“But the real kicker is the big one causes symptoms we would call Irukandji syndrome, which is often mistaken for anaphylactic shock.
“When I hear people saying people are getting anaphylactic shock (severe allergic reaction), it makes me wonder if maybe the cases are due to a species that isn’t the common little one, but maybe this big one is around and about and just hasn’t been confirmed.”
Dr Gershwin said the 2013 report of the big species was “quite a sizeable bloom at the time”.
“This armada stretched from Byron Bay to the top end of Fraser Island,” she said.
“It was quite an extensive area, but I haven’t seen any reports this year.
“But the cases of people ending up in hospital from bluebottle stings makes me really wonder if this is what is going on.”
Lifesavers conducted stinger sweeps on western Fraser Island at the weekend after a spate of Irukandji stings. (Supplied: Surf Life Saving Queensland)
She said with the number of stings being reported it was “absolutely possible that one in a thousand of those could be those larger species”.
“It’s hard to get enough observations and specimens to really study it.
“I’ve only ever seen one specimen and it wasn’t live, it’s probably a really amazing story about why it is so rare and without somebody tackling that and finding it why it so rare we don’t know.”
Sting can cause nausea and vomiting
Dr Gershwin said the sting itself would “look like a normal bluebottle sting”.
“But then you would get systemic symptoms like severe lower back pains, abdominal cramping, nausea and vomiting, these kinds of symptoms typically associated with anaphylactic shock.
“But the other symptoms like lower back pain, sweating, Irukandji symptoms you wouldn’t get with standard old everyday anaphylactic shock.”
Sunshine Coast GP and former Australian Medical Association federal councillor Wayne Herdy said he had also never heard of a case of a severe allergic reaction to a bluebottle sting, but believed it was possible.
“Anything that has a complex carbohydrate or protein molecule is capable of producing an immune reaction,” Dr Herdy said.
It would not happen the first time you were stung, but could happen the second or possibly even the hundredth time around, he said.
“When you get it the first time round, you won’t have a reaction, but if your immune system overreacts then next time around, you can react differently.”
Dr Herdy said people who were allergic would have a “much more severe reaction to it”.
“They can swell up a lot, they can get short of breath … they can have a reaction called anaphylaxis which is life-threatening.”