Gulf Coast Swimmers Brace for Sea Lice

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
Sea lice, the confusingly named tiny offspring of jellyfish and sea anemones, can cause a nasty rash. . (Photo: snowrg/Shutterstock)

If you're looking forward to hitting the Gulf Coast beaches this summer, there's something you need to know. The sea lice are coming.

The Florida Department of Health recently issued a warning that sea lice will be prevalent until August and can be found along 250 miles of coastline from the tip of the state to the Panhandle.

Nicknamed more for their tiny size than their connection to lice, sea lice are immature nematocysts or the very tiny offspring of jellyfish and sea anemones. While they look like specks of pepper out of the water, they become near-invisible once submerged, making their often huge numbers a big threat to unsuspecting swimmers.

"The primary offenders in Florida and Caribbean waters are the larvae of the thimble jellyfish, Linuche unguiculata," writes Dr. G. Yancey Mebane on a diving website. "These larvae, generally half a millimeter in length, can find their way into bathing suits — even passing through the mesh of some suits — and become trapped against the skin and sting."

How can you tell if you've been stung?

Unlike their notorious parents, the sting from the baby jellyfish is not something that's generally noticed until hours have passed. According to WebMD, the rash consists of raised bumps or blisters of different shapes and sizes that appear very red and may be extremely itchy — and it's that itchy rash that earned the terrible nickname "seabather's eruption." Additional symptoms can include fever, chills, headaches, nausea and vomiting. Outbreaks have been known to clear up within two or three weeks, with or without treatment.

How to protect yourself

So how to avoid these stinging little devils? Nematocysts are most common in the waters around Florida and other Gulf Coast states in May and June, so limit your swims if reported incidents are high during those months. If you do hit the surf, health experts recommend showering immediately afterwards with your bathing suit off to prevent further stings from trapped larvae. Your suit should then be washed with vinegar and then detergent and heat dried to kill any remaining nematocysts.

In fact, according to Sandy Estabrook, bringing a bottle of vinegar with you to the beach may offer the best weapon against early signs of contact.

"The toxin is protein in nature and will respond to acid denaturation," he writes. "This is the most highly kept secret in Florida. Hence, if you feel a few stings when 1st exiting the ocean, (usually in the neck area) grab a spray bottle that contains white vinegar. (Acetic Acid) It works on regular Jelly Fish stings as well. Soak your clothing and body under the suit and any place it comes in contact with clothing thoroughly."

Estabrook adds that while you may end up smelling like a giant garden salad, such a fate will likely protect you from further ill effects from the jelly fish larvae.