How bad is it to be stung by a jellyfish?
There are horror stories about box jellyfish, which have tentacles that can reach up to ten feet in length and carry a half million venomous cells. But they’re a concern in Australia; off North American shores, most people are stung by sea nettle or bay nettle jellyfish, whose tentacles can measure up to six feet in length. Their sting can produce a painful rash that lasts for anywhere from an hour to a day. Although the rash will typically clear up on its own—no medical intervention necessary—it will definitely hurt.
“A jellyfish bite feels like a needle prick, which leads to subsequent local, and occasional generalized, inflammation, and nerve irritation,” says Anthony Kouri, M.D., Chief Resident of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Toledo Medical Center. “This produces pain, swelling, and itching.” In some cases, jellyfish stings can cause allergic reactions, but this is rare. Jellyfish are just one of several hidden beach dangers you should take seriously.
What should you do if stung by a jellyfish?
If you or someone with you is stung by a jellyfish, there are a few steps you can take. Of course, if any allergic reaction occurs, make sure to call 9-1-1. The first thing to do when wondering how to treat a jellyfish sting is to remove any tentacles left behind, advises Cindy Parker, DO, an emergency medicine physician at Kaiser Permanente in Southern California. As long as the tentacles remain touching something, they will continue to sting. Use seawater to rinse the stung area to remove the tentacles. Don’t use fresh water—”the osmotic gradient differs from sea water and it can cause a greater release of venom,” Kouri warns.
If any tentacles remain, you may have to peel them off. “Wear gloves and use tweezers,” Parker suggests. Touching the tentacles with bare hands could transmit the stings to your fingers, so if you don’t have any gloves or tweezers handy, Kouri recommends washing your hands thoroughly after touching the tentacles. Finally, with the tentacles gone, you can rinse the afflicted area with hot water—not scalding, but as hot as the person who’s been stung can tolerate. Studies have found that hot water is more effective at easing the pain than ice. If possible, a hot shower will help soothe the pain.
There are some other potential methods to help ease the pain of the sting after the tentacles are completely gone. To ease the pain, both Parker and Kouri say that applying a paste of baking soda mixed with sea water can ease the immediate sting. A more heavily disputed method is the use of distilled vinegar. Some sources recommend it; others claim that it is actually completely ineffectual, and it remains a popular but controversial home remedy. And you can always “try controlling the pain with over-the-counter [ibuprofen] medications (like Tylenol),” says Dr. Parker.
Does the peeing method work?
The reason you shouldn’t flush the sting with fresh water is the same reason urine is not actually an effective remedy for how to treat a jellyfish sting. Although it contains salts and electrolytes, urine is typically too diluted; like fresh water, it’s more likely to make the pain worse. Some people have claimed that the acid content of urine does neutralize the pain of the sting, but usually, the urine is not nearly acidic enough to quell the pain of the venom. So, yes, there are many methods for how to treat a jellyfish sting, but peeing on it is not one of them. It’s firmly in the realm of health myths that make doctors cringe.