If you’re headed to the beach this summer, one question that’s surprisingly difficult to answer is how to deal with a jellyfish sting. Let’s say you go in the water and you get stung: it can hurt for sure, but could it be life-threatening? And what about that longstanding advice that peeing on a jellyfish sting will help ease the pain and make it heal faster. Could something that nasty actually work? Read on to learn whether there’s any truth to this advice, plus what you should (and shouldn’t) do if you’re stung by a jellyfish.
How likely are you to get a jellyfish sting?
There’s a lot we still don’t know about jellyfish and a sea of misconceptions to address. “People see jellyfish and automatically think they’re venomous,” Francis L. Counselman, MD, chair of emergency medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School, tells Health. But out of some ten thousand jellyfish species, only 1% actually pose a threat to humans. The most notorious of these include the lion’s mane, Portugese man-of-war, sea nettle, and box jellyfish.
Unwanted interactions with jellyfish are fairly common. There are an estimated 150 million jellyfish stings around the world each year, according to a 2016 review in Marine Drugs. Typically, the result is a mild reaction that’s easy to treat at home.
However, in rare cases, jellyfish stings can be life-threatening. There’s a common misconception that the most dangerous species like the box jellyfish are only found in Australia or the Philippines. But reports of serious reactions have popped up around the world, including in Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and Florida, Isabel M. Algaze-Gonzalez, MD, an emergency medicine specialist and assistant clinical professor at University of California Irvine, tells Health.
When you brush up against one of these sea creatures or even disrupt one that’s washed up on shore, kinetic energy triggers their tentacles to release venom from thousands of tiny barbed stingers called nematocysts. “They’re like a spring mechanism inside a little egg, and any time you have something that makes them pop open—which is usually movement—they’ll sting you,” Dr. Algaze-Gonzalez explains.
The symptoms that follow—a sudden burning pain, itchiness, and sometimes a tentacle-shaped red or purplish rash—call for quick thinking. But many of us have no idea what to do.
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Should you pee on a jellyfish sting?
The simple answer is no. “There is no scientific evidence whatsoever to support urinating on a jellyfish sting,” confirms Dr. Counselman.
So why do people believe this? The TV show Friends is partially to blame, he says. In the first episode of season four, “The One With the Jellyfish,” Joey and Chandler convince Monica that urinating on a particularly painful sting on her foot could help make the pain go away. According to them, it works. But a 1990s sitcom isn’t the best source of medical advice.
In reality, “studies have shown that pee doesn’t do any harm or good, and it’s disgusting,” says Dr. Algaze-Gonzalez. Urea, a compound found in urine, could possibly help un-stick tentacles by dissolving the sticky material they use to latch on. Usually, though, it’s not concentrated enough in your urine to have this effect.
Worse yet, using your own fluids could end up causing more pain by disrupting stingers’ delicate chemical balance and triggering them to fire.
Instead of needlessly embarrassing yourself or offending fellow beach-goers, opt for tried-and-true remedies that are much more sanitary and backed by research.
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How to treat a jellyfish sting
First, make sure you’re not dealing with a full-blown medical emergency. Pain, itchiness, and a rash where you were stung are all normal signs of a mild, localized reaction. However, “if you start to have systemic symptoms, you really need to go to the ER to get checked out,” says Dr. Counselman.
Red flags that could indicate a severe reaction include:
- Stomach pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Muscle pain or spasms
- Drowsiness, confusion, or fainting
- Difficulty breathing or swallowing
- Racing heartbeat or palpitations
- Blistering skin
If you’re experiencing any of the above, call 911 or have someone drive you to the closest emergency department. Otherwise, you can usually self-treat a jellyfish sting. Here’s what to do:
Get out of the water and remove the stingers
Your first impulse is likely to douse your skin in freshwater, rub at it with a towel, or scratch away at stingers. Don’t! All of the above would only release more venom due to movement, says Dr. Algaze-Gonzalez. Instead, protect your fingers with something thick like a wetsuit and delicately pluck off any remaining stingers or pieces of tentacle, she advises.
Pour vinegar over the sting site
The best treatment depends on what type of jellyfish stung you, and even then, researchers are still sorting out the details. But if you have some vinegar nearby, dousing your skin with it can often effectively deactivate stingers, says Dr. Algaze-Gonzalez. If you’re far from civilization, rinsing off with saltwater is your next best option.
Apply hot water
Next, soak your skin in water that’s as hot as you can tolerate or hop in the shower for 30 minutes or so. Since venom is labile (meaning it breaks down in heat), this can help stop the stinging, says Dr. Counselman.
Relieve pain and swelling with OTC medications
The vast majority of jellyfish stings can be treated with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) like Ibuprofen (Advil) or Aleve (naproxen) and hydrocortisone cream, says Dr. Counselman. Just make sure to follow the label instructions.
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When to see a doctor for a jellyfish sting
In most cases, there’s no need to visit a health care provider for a jellyfish sting. Your symptoms should fade within a few hours, with a rash lingering no longer than two weeks, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
But if you develop signs of a serious reaction, experience intense pain that doesn’t go away, or have been stung in the eye, seek medical attention immediately. You may need additional care such as medication for severe pain, antivenin to neutralize the venom, or an antihistamine for an allergic reaction.
How to avoid a jellyfish sting
The best treatment for jellyfish stings is to prevent them altogether by staying out of the water when they’re around, says Dr. Algaze-Gonzalez. Since the type of jellyfish and ideal treatment can vary so much, ask a lifeguard or local guide to share their insight before going for a swim.
If you know you’re headed for risky territory and can’t help but take a dip, wear a protective suit and bring along a spray bottle filled with vinegar (but keep it cool since hot vinegar could burn your skin), suggests Dr. Algaze-Gonzalez.
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