Symptoms and Signs of Bristleworm Sting

Medical Author: John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP
Medically Reviewed on 9/16/2021

Doctor's Notes on Bristleworm Sting

Bristleworms are elongated segmented worms and belong to the phylum of Annelid worms, class Polychaeta. They can grow up to 1 foot in length and a 1-inch in width. Each segment contains a pair of bristles. Although bristleworms are not aggressive, they may bite when handled, and the bristles or spines (chaetea) can penetrate skin like cactus spines and can be difficult to remove. Bristleworms are often found in tidal waters under rocks and corals in tropical areas throughout the world.

Symptoms of bristleworm stings include

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

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

What Is the Treatment for a Bristleworm Sting?

Treatment for a bristleworm sting includes:

  • Remove bristles with tweezers or adhesive tape and peel it off to remove or to pull the residual spines out of the skin
  • Clean the skin carefully with soap and water and try 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
    • 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
  • Oral antibiotics are often recommended to prevent secondary bacterial infection if the wound may be contaminated
  • Over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications may be used such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil)

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Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.