Here's what you should pack for beach trips to treat a jellyfish sting.
Chances are, you know someone who’s come back from a beach vacation, and they recount to you the story of their friend getting stung by a small, non-poisonous jellyfish. According to them, another friend bravely volunteered their urine to treat the jellyfish sting.
“I would never do that,” you might have thought to yourself, cringing at the idea of anyone pointing their stream in the direction of your arm or leg.
Then again, is peeing on a jelly fish sting even necessary? Is it even the best treatment?
What should you know about jellyfish stings?
Jellyfish are one of the most beautiful and wondrous creatures to look at, appearing as if they floated right out of a Dr. Seuss book. Despite their sheer bodies with dangling, colorful tentacles, these sea creatures can sometimes pose a big threat to humans.
Jellyfish sting in order to paralyze their prey. The venom they release contains tiny stinging cells (called nematocysts). These continue to “fire” poison into the body. That’s why it continues to sting past the initial attack.
The real risk to humans is not necessarily from the venom itself, but from your reactions to them. Most fatalities from jellyfish stings come from drowning after being stung (due to the paralyzing effect) or from having an allergic reaction to the jellyfish venom.
Are some jellyfish stings more dangerous than others?
Many jellyfish stings simply hurt, but some can be fatal, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. These jellyfish contain powerful venom that is more likely to cause serious reactions and even death:
Box Jellyfish (a.k.a. Sea Wasp)
A box jellyfish can kill humans in a matter of minutes. If you notice breathing difficulties, chest pain, stomach pain, or heavy sweating, call 9-1-1 and get emergency medical attention right away.
What's the best way to treat a jellyfish sting?
You can treat a jellyfish sting yourself if it's not life threatening. The goal is to “freeze” the stinging cells so they halt their firing process, which relieves you of pain and other complications.
Scientists have studied various liquids to assess which are best for halting the stingers: fresh water, sea water, vinegar, urine, and even kerosene. Sorry to break it to anyone who’s already been peed on because of a jellyfish sting, but urine is not the best treatment. In fact, it’s highly discouraged.
Urine and fresh water both make jellyfish stings worse by promoting the firing of the stinging cells. This can push the toxins deeper into the skin.
Instead, experts recommend using vinegar. Douse the sting site with large amounts of vinegar for at least half a minute, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. This should help for all types of jellyfish stings (so you might want to add vinegar to your beach packing list from now on).
The next best choice is sea water. This appears to halt the stinging cells better than fresh water can. Either way, do not rub sand on the sting, scrape or pick at the site, or apply any pressure to the area. Simply rinse with vinegar or sea water.
What should you do after rinsing the sting?
After you rinse the sting with vinegar or sea water, remove any visible tentacles. Then, soak the site of the jellyfish sting in hot (not scalding) tap water for 20 to 40 minutes. The water should be between 104 and 113 degrees Fahrenheit. Next, apply an antihistamine or cortisone cream. This can help soothe the itching.
The skin irritation and rash from the jellyfish sting should improve in a few days or weeks. Continue to apply antihistamine cream to help with the itching. Reach out to your doctor if you're struggling with continued itch.
When is a jellyfish sting an emergency?
If at any point you notice severe symptoms, call 9-1-1. This includes:
- Worsening symptoms
- Irregular pulse
- Nausea and vomiting
- Muscle spasms
- Difficulty breathing
You can also call the Poison Help hotline at any time (even for non-emergencies): 1-800-222-1222.
But let’s get one thing straight: You do not have to (and shouldn’t) pee on a jellyfish sting.
Heading to the beach?
How to treat jellyfish stings. West J Med. 2001 Mar;174(3):213.
Jellyfish stings. Jacksonville, FL: Nemours Foundation. (Accessed on December 20, 2021 at https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/jellyfish.html.)
Jellyfish stings. Washington, DC: U.S. National Library of Medicine. (Accessed on December 20, 2021 at https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002845.htm.)