Jellyfish tentacles contain microscopic barbed stingers. Each stinger has a tiny bulb that holds venom and a coiled, sharp-tipped tube. The jellyfish uses the venom to protect itself and kill prey.
When you brush against a tentacle, tiny triggers on its surface release the stingers. The tube penetrates the skin and releases venom. It affects the immediate area of contact and may enter the bloodstream.
Jellyfish that have washed up on a beach may still release venomous stingers if touched.
Types of jellyfish
While many types of jellyfish are relatively harmless to humans, some can cause severe pain and are more likely to cause a systemic reaction. These jellyfish cause more-serious problems in people:
- Box jellyfish. Box jellyfish can cause intense pain. Life-threatening reactions â although rare â are more common with this type. The more dangerous species of box jellyfish are in the warm waters of the Pacific and Indian oceans.
- Portuguese man-of-war. Also called bluebottle jellyfish, Portuguese man-of-war jellyfish live mostly in warmer seas. This type has a blue or purplish gas-filled bubble that keeps it afloat on the water and acts as a sail.
- Sea nettle. Common in both warm and cool seawaters, sea nettles live along the northeast coast of the United States and are abundant in the Chesapeake Bay.
- Lion's mane jellyfish. These are the world's largest jellyfish, with a body diameter of more than 3 feet (1 meter). They're most common in cooler, northern regions of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.