Sea Sponge Irritation Facts
- Sea sponges are invertebrate marine animals (phylum Ponfera) that have a porous skeleton that contain spicules. They are filter-feeders. Sea sponges grow on shells, stones, or other solid objects on the ocean floor. They are stationary, meaning they do not move on their own. Sea sponges pump water into themselves through tiny pores on their tough outer skin, where microscopic food particles are filtered out. Some sponges can pump up to six gallons of water each day.
- Sponges vary in size, shape, and color. Divers who hunt for sea sponges find green, yellow, orange, red, and purple sponges, which are only harvestable if they are at least five inches across. Some sponges, however, can grow up to 6 feet across. They live in temperate, subtropical, and tropical waters. Sea sponges are not aggressive, so human contact is intentional or accidental.
- Irritation from sea sponges occurs either due to insertion of the tiny spicules from the sponge itself or due to a sensitivity or allergic reaction to the sponge and its "products." To harvest sponges, divers use gloves, which reduce the contact with excrement, but some of the irritants (spicules or waste products) may pass through certain glove materials or seep into the glove at the wrist.
- Sea sponges for sale in stores have been cleaned and do not resemble their living form because all the living tissue has been removed. Only the skeleton remains.
Sea Sponge Irritation Symptoms
- Initially, a stinging or itchy, prickly sensation is felt.
- Later, burning, pain, blisters, joint swelling, and severe itching may develop.
- In cases with large body exposure to certain sponges, patients may develop, fever, chills, dizziness, muscle cramps and nausea. Severe cases can also develop erythema multiforme, a type of skin condition requiring medical care.
Sea Sponge Irritation Treatment
- First the skin should be gently dried and then attempts made to remove any of the "spicules" from the skin using adhesive tape, rubber cement or facial peel product.
- Next, dilute (5%) acetic acid (vinegar) should be soaked over the affected area for 10 to 30 minutes (up to 4 times a day). If vinegar is not available isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol) is a good second choice.
- Hydrocortisone cream provides no benefit in the initial care of sea sponge irrigation and in fact could be detrimental if used prior to spicule removal and acetic acid use. After the initial treatment of above, if skin inflammation is noted then hydrocortisone type creams may be applied 2- to times daily to relieve itching Discontinue immediately if any signs of infection appear.
- Treat itching with diphenhydramine (Benadryl) 25 to 50 mg every 6 hours and ranitidine (Zantac) 150 mg tablet every 12 hours for 3 to 4 days.
- If the wound shows any evidence of infection, such as redness, pus, increasing pain, foul odor, warmth at the area , or fever, see a health care professional. Antibiotics are usually recommended in cases where infection is present. Some antibiotics can cause an increased sensitivity to the sun, so use a sunscreen (at least SPF 15).
- Note that dried sponges, not processed commercially, may still cause irritation and symptoms.
Medically reviewed by Avrom Simon, MD; Board Certified Preventative Medicine with Subspecialty in Occupational Medicine
Auerbach, P. Wilderness Medicine. Chapter 81. 6th ed. United States: Mosby, 2011.