Portuguese man-of-war have stung hundreds at South Florida beaches

Pretty blue balloons with nasty stinging tentacles have washed up on South Florida’s beaches, with the arrival of Portuguese man-of-war season.

Lifeguard stands across the region are flying purple sea pest flags, as ocean winds blow these unwelcome visitors toward shore. On Sunday alone, lifeguards in Hollywood treated 204 people for stings.

Winter is the season for their arrival, and no one is claiming that the numbers are unusual for this time of year.

“They’re washing up on the beach, but nothing crazy,” said Bob Lemons, spokesman for Boca Raton Fire Rescue Services.


The majority of victims appear to be tourists, said Sandra King, spokeswoman for Pompano Beach. On Friday, for example, a child from out-of-town picked one up and popped the balloon, ending up with severe stings.

“They forced us and our yellow lab out of the water and eventually off of the Hollywood dog beach,” said Barbara Wallace, of Hollywood.

When she arrived at the dog beach with her husband, her nine-year-old son and her dog, she thought it odd that no dogs were in the water. Then she found out why: It was because of the stinging gasbags that her son calls the “blue meanies.”

“Within 15 minutes, my son got hit on legs with the tentacles of a small blue meanie, then my husband’s feet,” she said in an email. “My dog came out of the water yelping. He immediately started licking his underside. He was also very curious about the huge ones on shore, and we had to keep pulling him away from them since we know you can still get stung.”

She rinsed off the stings and gave everyone ice in the car.

“Once home, our dog jumped into the cold water of our pool and sat on the top step for a long time,” she said. “I believe the cold water made the stings feel better.”

In Delray Beach, most of the 358 minor medical incidents on the beach so far this month have been Portuguese men-of-war stings, said Delray Ocean Rescue Division Chief Phil Wotton.

They’ve been common on the beach since the winds shifted inland about a week ago.

“The longer we have onshore breezes the more M-O-W will be present,” he said in an email. “I will say the ones washing ashore now are much larger than the ones you would see in late November. There will not be any relief from the M-O-W until we see some west winds again.”

Each man-of-war is actually a colony of animals, not a single species. Within the colony, a division of labor allows each animal to do its job, as a tentacle, as the gas bladder and so on. The crest of the gas bladder accounts for the name, giving it the shape of a warship from the age of sail.

Like related species such as jellyfish, corals and sea anemones, Portuguese men-of-war use tentacles with stinging capsules to capture prey, ranging from plankton to small fish. They typically live in the Gulf Stream and don’t want to come near shore any more than we want them there, but they drift at the mercy of wind-driven ocean currents.

Although the stings are rarely dangerous, they can be extremely painful.

Lifeguards typically provide pain medication at the scene. The danger comes if a victim has an allergic reaction, with those allergic to bee stings usually at risk of an allergic reaction to a Portuguese man-of-war.

Here are some tips:

-- Stay clear of them. Their tentacles can extend up to 30 feet. Remember, a beached man-of-war can still sting.

-- Contact a lifeguard.

-- Rinse the affected area with seawater to remove any stinging barbs.

--Don’t try to remove the tentacle with your bare hands. Use a towel and gently unwrap it away from your skin,

-- Treat with vinegar or hot water, not cold water. Later, use ice to ease the pain.

-- Use Benadryl oral or topical cream, 954-356-4535