Going to the beach this summer? Along the southeast Atlantic coast, you are more likely to be stung by a jellyfish than bitten by a shark. The neurotoxins that shoot into you when their tentacles touch your skin would be enough to stun a small fish or shrimp, making it a tasty meal for the jelly.
During the summer there are often jellyfish blooms up and down the east coast. While these blooms may only last a few days, during that time the ocean could be full of jellyfish. With tentacles that can reach more than 49 feet from the main body, you may get stung even if you don’t see a jellyfish near you.
With some help from the popular TV show “Friends,” the treatment of urinating on a jellyfish sting entered pop culture’s medical advice manual. As gross as it sounds, does it work? We spoke with Dr. Chad Weston of Novant Health Oceanside Family Medicine & Convenient Care to dispel some of the common myths and find out how to really treat a jellyfish sting.
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1. Well, does it?
The thought behind urine is correct – liquids with a low PH (acidic) can neutralize the venom that causes the stinging. That said, Weston does not recommend the move and he noted that white vinegar will work better and is more hygienic.
2. Hot or cold?
The jellyfish sting can give off a burning sensation, so people automatically think ice. “Don’t stick your leg in a cooler full of ice,” Weston advised. “Use hot water instead.” Water with a temperature of 110 degrees or higher, which is the minimum of the hot water that comes out of the faucet in your house, can bring relief.
3. Salt or fresh water?
Since you are right next to the ocean, you may be tempted to jump back in the saltwater. Don’t. Use fresh water instead.
4. Meat tenderizer?
Another treatment that you may have heard of is meat tenderizer. Jellyfish venom is protein-based and the papain enzyme in meat tenderizer breaks down those proteins, helping decrease the itching and burning. While this works, it is better to treat the jellyfish sting before it reaches this point.
5. Tentacle removal techniques
If you have tentacles stuck to you, wet sand is not the best way to get them off. (Neither is madly waving your arms and legs.) Weston recommends washing them off with vinegar or scraping them off with a credit card or similar thin piece of plastic. People around you will appreciate you carefully removing them versus flinging them down the beach.
6. Timing is key
Quick treatment is vital for minimizing the effects of the jellyfish. Weston is an open-water swimmer and avid beach goer. In his beach bag he keeps a zip-style plastic bag full of white vinegar and paper towels. He leaves it in the sunshine on the beach so he has a warm vinegar solution at the ready.
7. When to see a doctor
Weston said some people can have allergic reactions to the jellyfish stings that are worse than average and certain parts of your body are more sensitive. Extremely young children are more at risk. If you or your child is lightheaded, dizzy, or having trouble breathing, they should be checked out. But most jellyfish stings, even though they are annoying, are mild, even if they don’t seem that way, and with proper treatment will go away on their own.
The safest bet is to not get stung at all. Purple flags flying at the beach are a warning that jellyfish are in the area. If you do want to take a dip, cover yourself up with a wetsuit or other clothing that can protect you from direct contact with jellyfish.