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Bristleworm Sting

What Should I Know about Bristleworms?

Are 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 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 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 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 a 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 manufacturers direction(s).


Emotional trauma is best described as a psychological response to a deeply distressing or life-threatening experience. See Answer

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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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.