Sunday, July 9, 2017

Does Urine Stop a Jellyfish Sting?

The urban legend is that if you get a jelly fish sting, you should pour urine on it (not necessarily have someone urinate on it) to reduce the toxicity of the venom in the skin. The urban legend is true.

If you or someone with you gets stung by a jellyfish, the very first thing is to get them out of the water. You don't want to get stung again.

The second priority is making sure the stinger does not come in contact with fresh water. The jellyfish tentacle swells in the presence of fresh water and becomes much more difficult to remove. And while rubbing alcohol does not cause the tentacle to swell, in some species rubbing alcohol "triggers" the tentacle to fire off its venom.

Meat tenderizer might actually help for a few minutes, but it can also irritate the skin of the victim. Cold packs seldom help. And solvents (WD-40, turpentine, gasoline) are dangerous, because they break down the skin and help both the venom and the toxic solvent enter the body.

Then you want to make sure the tentacle does not release its venom. That's the reason urine--or vinegar or ammonia--helps. Acid solutions on the wound keep the tentacle from breaking down its neomacysts, the tiny packets of venom that cause tissue damage and worse. A single-tentacled jellyfish sting is so mild it may not require vinegar treatment, but as a matter of good practice, you can't go wrong with vinegar or ammonia on a jellyfish sting. Urine may or may not help, depending on the urea content of the urine (which isn't something you can control, at least not in an emergency situation).

Once you've got a jellyfish sting and you or a companion or a emergency medical technician has put on gloves to remove the tentacle (you don't want to come in contact with the stinger), you may or may not need further treatment. Stings to the eyes, mouth, vulva or penis require emergency room treatment, as does shortness of breath or swelling in the throat.

Milder stings will just leave a red, itchy, painful, raised rash for a few days to a few weeks. Stings by sea urchins, sea cucumbers, and sea anemones are similar, except these sea creatures usually leave a very distinctively shaped mark with their sting. Both the rash and the mark eventually fade. Sea urchin, sea cucumber, and sea anemone bites can also be treated with vinegar (or urine).

(Not every itchy rash you get in shallow water is a jellyfish sting. Another possibility is a usually less serious allergic condition known as cercarial dermatitis.)

How do you prevent jellyfish stings? One word: Lycra. Jellyfish (except the 100-foot/33-meter long monster jellyfish in the south Pacific) don't sting through Lycra. Even better, don't swim where you know jellyfish are swimming, too.

If you are swimming on the north or west coasts of Australia, take time to speak with the locals about any steps you need to protect yourself form the small carybdeid jellyfish that are potentially very toxic. Australian scientists have discovered that jellyfish tend to "sleep" from about 3 in the afternoon to 6 in the morning, but in the morning and early afternoon hours they are very active and likely to sting.

And if urinating on your skin and vinegar both seem unappealing to you, consider applying a sunblock with jellyfish protection such as SafeSea.

An answer to a reader question (sorry the system didn't save your comment):

Q. An expert says that you would have to kiss the moon jellyfish currently invading Cocoa Beach in Florida to get a sting? Does that mean they are safe? (June 6, 2011).
A. No, not even if you don't kiss them. Moon jellyfish have a gooey consistency that makes their tentacles stick to your skin. The venom is not especially potent, but you have much longer contact. Florida is probably the place where the "urine cure" is most commonly used.

Photo credit: Sea nettle jellyfish Photographed by: Dan90266 Original URL: {{cc-by-sa}}. Wikimedia.

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