How to relieve a jellyfish sting: study finds fresh water and urine worsen reaction

Written by: 
Emmalee Smith

Kikiana Hurwitz, a BYU-Hawaii professor in the Natural Science Department, found different methods to treat a jellyfish sting based on her experiment in 2016 and debunk some myths passed on by students.

Hurwitz said the experiment, done with some colleagues, showed hot water or vinegar are the best treatments for the sting.

“So if you were stung, the absolute best thing to do with no money on you, would be to go home and take a hot bath,” said Hurwitz. In her experiment, she said they used water from 42 to 45 degrees Celsius, which is just a little hotter than a hot tub. “If you essentially got into a hot tub and stayed there for 15 minutes or so, that would be the best treatment.”

One of the famous myths regarding jellyfish stings include peeing on it, according to BYUH students. Oni Rareba, a freshman studying exercise science from Texas, said she was told peeing lowers the swelling.

Kendal Keung, a senior studying exercise science from New Zealand, agreed and said, “My nan tells you to pee on it.”

Espirit Saucier, an assistant professor in marine biology, said the myth probably came about because acidic solutions help remove the toxins and urine is slightly acidic. “But if anyone is ready to pee on you, they’re not dehydrated enough to make it worth your effort. Plus, it’s also not very hygienic.”

Hurwitz said when she tested urine in her experiment, they found peeing does make it a little better because of the heat. “[We found out] it’s not the active compounds in it that would cause it to feel better. It’s most likely the heat or the temperature that would make it feel better.”

She said while it may feel better, “long-term it’s probably still best to get a hot bath or get in a hot tub.”

Stine Plomgren, a sophomore studying anthropology from California, said when she googled methods to cure the sting, it said to scrape off the stingers and rinse it with saltwater, which Hurwitz said is the wrong treatment.

“That would be bad. The rubbing of it will cause the cnidae to discharge,” said Hurwitz. According to Saucier, cnidae are microscopic organelles the jellyfish has on its tentacles, and when brushed against, they are released onto the skin.

Saucier added, “The stinging is [caused by] the cnidae bursting and injecting toxins into you. You want to wash off the ones that have not yet stung you. The best thing is to get the rest of the tentacle off you or the [rest of the] cnidae.” Saucier recommended using something acidic, like vinegar.

Hurwitz said the rubbing could be used as a distraction to make the pain feel less [painful], “but I feel like those who’ve done it have gone home and probably felt more pain after that.” She suggests not rubbing because in the long term it makes it worse.

“If you had money and you knew you were going to get stung a lot and you wanted to have treatment on the spot, the ‘sting no more’ cream was developed in our laboratory,” added Hurwitz. “The formulation of this cream and spray was created for on-the-spot beach treatment. But this costs money, and vinegar you can go to the store and buy a five gallon for a couple of dollars.”

Date Published: 
Friday, January 19, 2018
Last Edited: 
Friday, January 19, 2018

NOTE: This article's online publication was delayed because it was featured in the Jan. 2018 print issue.