Professional Opinion: Can you really treat a jellyfish sting with urine?

rdamgen@islandpacket.comJune 9, 2014 

Dr. Robert Clodfelter, medical director of Hilton Head Hospital's emergency department

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This week, Dr. Robert Clodfelter, medical director of Hilton Head Hospital's emergency department, discusses how to treat a jellyfish sting and why -- despite what you might have heard -- you should never, ever urinate on one.

Question. There's a common notion that jellyfish stings can be treated with urine. Is that true? Is there anything less gross that would work to take the sting away? What should I pack in my beach bag to prepare for a jellyfish sting? Should I do anything else when I get home to treat the sting?

Answer. Urinating on a jellyfish sting can actually make matters worse. This may lead to worsening pain due to additional stings from unruptured nematocysts still present on the skin.

Nematocysts are the microscopic stinging organelles presents by the thousands on each jellyfish tentacle. After encountering a jellyfish, many of these nematocysts may rupture, causing stings. The goal of treatment is to first remove the unruptured nematocysts still on the skin.

This is best accomplished by rinsing the affected area with salt water. Do not use fresh water, which can cause the nematocysts to rupture. Do not rub with sand as this can also lead to additional stings.

The next step is to apply shaving cream and to use the edge of a credit card or similar device to remove remaining nematocysts and/or tentacles. At that point, applying white vinegar can help the stings. An over-the-counter analgesic can also help; acetaminophen, ibuprofen or naprosyn are possibilities.

Some beachgoers will pack their beach bags with a small can of shaving cream, a spray bottle of white vinegar, a credit card and an analgesic in preparation for a possible jellyfish encounter.

After jellyfish stings, keep out of the sun and heat until healing has occurred. A topical antibiotic ointment, such as polysporin or bacitracin, can be applied to the sting sites.

Follow reporter Rachel Damgen at twitter.com/IPBG_Rachel.

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