Here’s what you SHOULD do if you’re the unfortunate target of a jellyfish stinger. (Photo credit: Getty Images/Pete Karas)
It takes a jellyfish stinger just one microsecond — that’s .000001 seconds — to strike its target, according to the National Science Foundation. And when that target is you, we’re guessing you’ll be running (almost) as quickly out of the surf with a tentacle tangled around your leg.
What’s your next move? If you’ve ever seen the episode of Friends where Monica gets stung, you may be tempted to try peeing on your wound.
But, the truth is, a quick urine rinse won’t take the sting out of a run-in with a jellyfish — in fact, it may only make it worse (and not just because you’re now soaked in someone else’s urine), says Dan Wasserman, MD, a dermatologist in Naples, Florida.
Urine is often diluted, so it’s more similar to freshwater than saltwater. Why that’s a problem: Soaking the site with freshwater alters the concentration of salt inside and outside the tentacles’ stinging cells clinging to your skin. That could cause the nematocysts — the capsules where the venom is housed — to burst, says Wasserman. In other words, urine may make a minor sting a miserable one.
So instead of asking your beach buddy to drop his drawers, follow these steps instead: If the jellyfish is clear and stung you underwater (meaning it’s likely a box jellyfish), douse it with vinegar, suggests Craig Thomas, MD, an emergency physician in Hawaii and co-author of All Stings Considered. Although this won’t quell the pain, it will inactivate any lingering nematocysts, so they can’t release any more venom, he says. Vinegar that contains 4 to 6 percent acetic acid, applied to the area for 30 seconds, is best, according to a 2013 study review in the journal Marine Drugs.
A word of caution: Vinegar actually causes some species to discharge more venom, so if the tentacle is colored, skip this step. (Consider asking the locals what’s lurking in the water beforehand, so if you get stung, you have a better chance of knowing what type of jellyfish it was.)
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Next, untangle the tentacle — and make swift work of it. “Officially, you should take precautions — wear gloves, use something to lift it off,” Thomas says. “But time is crucial. I’ve been stung quite a few times, and I’ll tell you what I do: I grab one end and lift it off.” The pads of your fingers are probably thick enough to protect you, he says, but if you’re worried, a pair of tweezers (if you happen to have them) or even a credit card to scrape it off should do the trick. Finally, rinse off the area with a bucket of saltwater to remove any nematocysts still clinging to your skin.
A hot water soak may help ease the pain, but as long as it was a garden-variety jellyfish that stung you, the burning will probably subside on its own in 20 minutes or so, says Thomas. “[The pain] approaches a bee sting, but more spread out,” he says. “Can stings hurt a lot? Yes. Can people get significant systemic effects? Yes. Is that rare? Absolutely. In the ocean, your real risk is drowning — it’s not jellyfish or sharks or any of those things.”
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