Bristleworm Sting

Reviewed on 9/16/2021

What Should I Know about Bristleworms?

Is Bristleworms Dangerous to Humans?

  • Of the many species of worms, the bristleworm is one of the most dangerous.

What Is a Bristleworm?

  • Bristleworms are elongated segmented worms and belong to the phylum of Annelid worms, class Polychaeta.
  • They can grow up to 1 foot in length (30 cm) and a width of 1 inch (2.54 cm). Each segment contains a pair of bristles.

What Is a Bristleworm?

  • Although bristleworms are not aggressive, they may bite when handled, and the bristles or spines (termed chaetea) can penetrate the skin (sting when touched).
  • The spines penetrate the skin like cactus spines and can be difficult to remove, and usually cause the most symptoms listed below.
  • Use heavy gloves if handling these worms is necessary.
  • Bristleworms are often found in tidal waters under rocks and corals in tropical areas throughout the world.
  • Over 10,000 species of bristleworms (Polychaeta) have been identified.

What Do Bristleworms Look Like?

A bristleworm
A bristleworm.

Another bristleworm; Note obscured view due to camouflaged dorsum.
Another bristleworm; Note obscured view due to camouflaged dorsum.

What Are the Symptoms of Bristleworm Stings?

The bristleworm spines when touched can sting and cause:

  • pain,
  • burning sensation,
  • redness,
  • swelling, and
  • a rash.

The spines do not have any associated venom-producing cells so there is no fear of additional "venom" being released with the removal of the spines.

What Is the Treatment for Bristleworm Stings?

Treatment for a bristleworm sting includes the following:

  • Remove bristles with tweezers or adhesive tape. A facial "peel" may be used over the spines or a thick layer of rubber cement. Once the rubber cement has dried, peel it off to remove or to pull the residual spines out of the skin.
  • Clean the skin carefully so as to not break off any of the spines.
  • Any of the following may help to relieve the symptoms especially after the spines have been removed: 5% acetic acid (Vinegar), 70% isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol), dilute ammonia, or a paste or solution of meat tenderizer.
  • Severe skin irritation or other skin reactions may benefit from a topical corticosteroid cream or ointment such as hydrocortisone. Some individuals may even benefit from oral steroids such as prednisone.
  • If signs of infection are present, such as pus, redness, or localized warmth then the patient should consult a health care professional.
  • Oral antibiotics are often recommended to prevent secondary bacterial infection. Some antibiotics can cause sensitivity to the sun, so use sunscreen (at least SPF 15) if a person must have sun exposure during treatment.
  • Pain may be relieved with acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) taken according to the manufacturer's direction(s).

When to Seek Medical Care for a Bristleworm Sting

Consult a doctor about treatment with available medications if bitten or stung by a bristleworm.

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Reviewed on 9/16/2021
Medically reviewed by Kelly A. Truesdale, DO; Board Certification Family Practice


Cristopher Glasby, Tarmo Timm (2008). Global diversity of polychaetes (Polychaeta: Annelida) in freshwater. In E. V. Balian, C. Lé vêque, H. Segers & K. Martens. "Freshwater Animal Diversity Assessment". Hydrobiologia 595 (1): 107 - 115.

Briggs, D.E.G.; Kear, A.J. (1993). "Decay and preservation of polychaetes; taphonomic thresholds in soft-bodied organisms." Paleobiology 19 (1): 107 - 135.