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Irukandji Syndrome: History, Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Dan Washmuth

Dan has taught college Nutrition, Anatomy, Physiology, and Sports Nutrition courses and has a master's degree in Dietetics & Nutrition.

Irukandji syndrome results from a sting from a jellyfish and includes very serious symptoms. In this lesson, learn about the history, symptoms, and treatment for Irukandji syndrome.

Irukandji Syndrome

Justin and his new wife, Sophie, were on their honeymoon in Australia. During the trip, they both went snorkeling in the water off the northeast coast to see the amazing coral and wildlife.

After about an hour in, Sophie got stung by something on her leg. Justin quickly swam over to check on her, and was relieved to find that it didn't look too serious and Sophie hardly felt it. However, after about 30 more minutes, Sophie began screaming that the sting was burning badly and she started panicking.

Justin helped Sophie swim back to the shore and they quickly drove to the nearest hospital. On the way, Sophie began having severe headaches and cramps.

After putting Sophie through several tests at the hospital, the doctor informed them that she got stung by a jellyfish and that she was suffering from a condition called Irukandji syndrome.

Irukandji syndrome is a condition of very serious symptoms that are caused by a sting from a jellyfish called Carukia barnesi, also known as Irukandji.

Irukandji Syndrome: History

Carukia barnesi is a type of thumbnail sized jellyfish found in the waters of Australia, mostly off the northeast coast. During the early 1900s, people from a tribe in Queensland, Australia began suffering from strange symptoms caused by their stings. These symptoms included severe anxiety and a great fear of death.

Hugo Flecker, an Australian doctor who also researched and studied jellyfish, began looking into these cases. He determined the cause was from a marine sting and gave the syndrome the name, Irukandji, after a tribe that had inhabited the area.

Carukia barnesi, a jellyfish that causes Irukandji syndrome, can be found in the waters off of Queensland, Australia.
australia

In the 1960's, an Australian scientist named Dr. Jack Barnes narrowed down the suspects, and confirmed that the Carukia barnesi was the culprit by purposefully stinging himself, his 9-year-old son, and a lifeguard. All three of them eventually started having the associated symptoms and were rushed to the hospital for treatment.

Recent research has found out that it is possible that other types of jellyfish can cause Irukandji syndrome as well.

Irukandji Syndrome: Symptoms

When the Carukia barnesi jellyfish first stung Sophie, she felt a slight sting and a small welt formed on the skin. The initial sting is very similar to a mosquito bite. In half an hour though, more severe symptoms begin to develop, including:

  • Extreme lower back pain
  • Muscle cramps
  • Headaches
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Profuse sweating
  • Rapid heart beat
  • Anxiety
  • Feelings of impending doom

The most notable symptoms are severe anxiety and the severe feeling of impeding doom. Some victims have begged their doctors to kill them because they believed they were going to die anyway. Without proper treatment, Irukandji syndrome can cause life threatening conditions such as cardiac arrest.

A notable symptom of Irukandji syndrome is severe anxiety and the feeling of impending doom.
anxiety

Irukandji Syndrome: Treatment

Vinegar can be used to treat a jellyfish sting, as the acetic acid has been shown to deactivate and neutralize the venom. There's a myth that urinating on the sting will help, but it can actually exacerbate the venom's effects, so save yourself the indignity.

Additional treatment for Irukandji syndrome usually revolves around treating the specific symptoms. Pain can be treated using strong analgesics, or painkillers, such as opioids.

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