Anyone who's ever been stung by a jellyfish knows that when the pain first hits, you'd do just about anything to make it stop.
Well ... just about anything.
The age-old, wrong-headed and decidedly creepy remedy for a jellyfish sting might be the exception. It doesn't rank with bloodletting leeches or ice pick lobotomies in the annals of whacked-out medicine. It's closer to putting butter on a burn, say, or raw steak on a black eye.
Still, you should probably check the credentials of anyone who tells you, with a straight face, that peeing on a jellyfish sting is a good idea. Just to make sure you're not talking to Theodoric of York: Medieval Barber from "Saturday Night Live."
Peeing on a jellyfish sting is not a good idea. It may well do more harm than good. Urine — who comes up with this stuff anyway, Joey Tribbiani? — is not a wonder drug. It's ... pee.
"Some of the remedies promoted by word of mouth and online ... actually make the pain worse with certain species of jellyfish," Dr. Nicholas T. Ward of the University of California-San Diego's Department of Emergency Medicine says in a 2012 study published by the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP). "Current evidence suggests hot water and topical lidocaine, which is available at local pharmacies, may be more universally beneficial in treating pain from a jellyfish sting."
It's difficult to pinpoint just where and when the idea of peeing on a jellyfish sting originated. Probably, you'd think, because no one wants to take credit for it.
If you strain hard enough, though, it's not that difficult to see why this odd home remedy might sound somewhat reasonable. "You want to do what?"
For one, as is the case with many injuries of this type, warmth (rather than ice or ice packs) helps soothe the pain of a jellyfish sting. And pee, from the original source anyway, provides some warmth.
But maybe warm water instead? Or even hot water?
"Our research showed that immersing the sting in hot water was 50 percent more effective than ice packs in relieving pain," professor Angela Webster of the University of Sydney said in a 2013 study on the subject that was published in the Cochrane Library.
Another reason the urine treatment might sound a little less than outrageous? Many reputable health organizations, including the American Red Cross and the American Heart Association, have suggested flooding a jellyfish sting with vinegar. It is believed to help neutralize the stingers — called nematocysts — left behind by brushing up against a jellyfish tentacle.
A sign at an Australian beach offers a wordy warning. (Photo: Tim Gillin/flickr)
Again, if you strain hard enough, you might be able to see how somebody, at some point, searching frantically for vinegar and coming up empty handed, might have thought, "Hey, what if, in place of vinegar ... ?"
A Steinbeck fan, maybe, all full of "piss and vinegar" and just looking to help.
Whatever the case, some experts are now discounting the vinegar treatment. The ACEP study favors hot water and lidocaine, a topical anesthetic that relieves itching, burning and pain from skin inflammations. A study from James Cook University in Australia — they know jellyfish in Australia — suggests that vinegar keeps un-fired nematocysts from releasing venom, but may actually make those stingers that already have envenomated the victim release even more. That would make using vinegar on a sting potentially dangerous. (That study has its skeptics, though.)
So what to do when someone has been stung? Obviously, if the victim is in extreme distress and having trouble breathing — it happens, occasionally, with the more venomous jellyfish, like box jellyfish — a trip to the emergency room might be needed.
But for most stings, experts suggest rinsing the area immediately with saltwater, which is believed to keep the nematocysts from releasing more venom. Take a credit card and scrape any remaining part of the jellyfish tentacles off the skin.
After it's cleaned, bathe the area in extremely hot water (some may prefer ice) and apply something like lidocaine. If an over-the-counter pain reliever like aspirin or ibuprofen is needed, fine.
Finally, this: make sure all involved, no matter how well-intended they might be, keep their board shorts on. This isn't the Middle Ages.
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