Treating Bristleworm Stings with Vinegar: Does It Work?

09 Dec, 2015

While aquarists have somewhat rethought their relationship with bristworms as scavengers vs. pests, they still remain one of the tank inhabitants that won't think twice about inflicting pain upon you. Image by Silke Baron | CC - BY - 2.0

While aquarists have somewhat rethought their relationship with bristleworms as scavengers vs. pests, they still remain one of the tank inhabitants that won’t think twice about inflicting pain upon you. Image by Silke Baron | CC – BY – 2.0

I was rummaging through old photography recently and came across something I had documented, but never shared. During the teardown of a reef tank, I inadvertently nailed myself with a bristleworm…and not a little one. This wasn’t the coral-eating “Fire Worm,” but simply a large representative of the more benign scavengers that tend to populate most reef tanks.

Freshly stung by a bristle worm...I was looking for relief!

Freshly stung by a bristleworm…I was looking for relief!

Still, this little patch of dozens (hundreds?) of tiny spines in my skin was irritating. Having been stung more than once, I can say that even the small ones elicit a painful response. While I can’t really say they also “itch” in the classic sense, they certainly generate a response that makes you want to scratch, well after the spines are dealt with. While I’ve never experienced them, swelling, inflammation, numbness, and rashes have been reported following bristleworm stings. Before I go further, it bears reminding that for some people, a bristleworm sting can be a serious problem requiring medication attention. Pay attention to your symptoms; WebMD suggests that any bristleworm sting is probably worthy of a call to the doctor.

The actual sting is caused by the tiny bristles, called  chaetae, becoming embedded in your skin. Chaetae are the hollow, calcareous spines that line the body of the bristleworm. In my quick reading-up, it’s really unclear as to whether all species of bristleworms have venom associated with their spines, or only certain species. If the venom varies or is absent in some species, this could explain the wide range of differing reactions people report. [UPDATE – See Ron Shimek’s investigation on whether bristleworms, and specifically fireworms, are venomous or not!]

The sting of a bristleworm is something none of us want to deal with, but it is one of the hazards of the reef aquarium hobby, and hobbyists should probably be aware of the first aid options. I was rather surprised, however, to see that apparently this is a common enough problem that even WebMD has a section covering the treatment of bristleworm stings. On the short list of treatments and remedies:

  1. Remove the spines, either with tweezers, using various forms of  tape (including Duck Tape or even lint rollers) to adhere to the spines and pull them out, or dissolve the bristles with household vinegar.
  2. Apply hydrocortisone ointment to relieve burning and inflamation
  3. Use over-the-counter painkillers, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, to relieve pain.

(for full first aid instructions, and more detailed info, visit WebMD).

So when I got stung, I took one look at this and said, “Tweezers are going to be a waste of time,” and the application of something like tape seems like it would have been more irritating. I opted to go the vinegar route. After several minutes, this is what the spines looked like:

After several minutes of soaking in ordinary household white vinegar, the bristleworm spines, aka. chaetae, are partially dissolved.

After several minutes of soaking in ordinary household white vinegar, the bristleworm spines, aka chaetae, are partially dissolved.

It was somewhat boring just sitting looking at the tank, my finger soaking in a cup full of vinegar while the acetic acid ate away at the chaetae. This certainly wasn’t the quickest solution.  Did it work?  Take a look at the next image:

Finally, after a total soak of probably 15 minutes or more, the offending spines are gone.  The irritation is reduced, but still persists for a little while.

Finally, after a total soak of probably 15 minutes or more, the offending spines are gone. The irritation is reduced, but still persists for a little while.

After the soak, I had no further need for topical antihistamines or pain killers. I hope your reactions to a bristleworm sting are as mild as mine were. Next time, wear gloves; that’s an easy way to prevent this sort of thing from happening again!

Have you been stung by bristleworms? What did you do, and what worked best to alleviate your discomfort? Tell us in the comments below!

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About the author

Matt Pedersen
Matt Pedersen

Matt Pedersen is a Sr. Editor and Associate Publisher with Reef To Rainforest Media, LLC, including AMAZONAS & CORAL Magazines. Matt has kept aquariums for 34 years, has worked in most facets of the aquarium trade, is an active aquarist and fish breeder (both marine and freshwater), and was recognized as the 2009 MASNA Aquarist of the Year.

2 Comments

  1. December 09, 2015

    Thank you very much for sharing. It is not often I run into large bristle worms, but it has happened with new accounts and it is not pleasant!

  2. July 14, 2016

    Ouch, moved around some rocks last night – oh geez, my one finger hurts like anything! Looking for some vinegar now! Thanks!

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