As summer rolls around and families starting heading to the beach, there is a good chance that someone in your group might shriek out in pain and come running out of the shallows. Depending on where you travel, jellyfish stings are an inevitable part of an ocean vacation. These floating, soft-bodied aquatic animals carry small harpoon-shaped structures called nematocysts on their wispy tentacles that shoot stingerlike structures called cnidae into inattentive swimmers. Contrary to popular belief, these painful stings contain no electrical component -- although it might feel like it. Also spurious are the many folk remedies in popular culture for treating stings. Scientists and coastal authorities set the record straight with several medicinally grounded cures for that painful summer side effect. Hint: It's not what you've seen on TV.
In a groundbreaking 2017 scientific publication in the journal Toxins, toxicologists Angel Yanagihara and Christie Wilcox proved that many of the standard first aid cures actually make jellyfish stings worse! Common practice advises scrubbing the affected skin with saltwater immediately upon being stung to flush out the cnidae. Additionally, standard first aid methods recommend using a card or razor blade, if available, to scrape out the penetrated cnidae. Laboratory research proved both of these methods to be detrimental, as this type of irritation actually encourages greater venom delivery into the bloodstream. Beachgoers should also avoid the common old wives' tale that peeing on the sting will neutralize the stinging area. Contributor Ilima Loomis cites Wilcox in a Smithsonian Magazine Online article published in 2017, in which she advises against this, stating that, yes, urine can be neutral solution, but that does not mean it is a neutralizing solution. Often, it just moves the stingers around. Additionally, given the inconsistent chemical makeup of urine -- because of factors including hydration level, hormones and diet -- it is actually possible for some of the concentrated compounds found in urine to trigger cnidae to secrete even more venom.
Although Monica's famous jellyfish sting cure from the hit TV show "Friends" has been thoroughly debunked, there are several methods to alleviating further pain and avoiding the release of more venom. Yanagihara and Wilcox recommend bringing a small container of undiluted vinegar with you to the beach. If you are stung, douse the affected area with vinegar and wait for 30 to 45 seconds. This will effectively neutralize the venom. The Mayo Clinic's online database also recommends packing tweezers in your beach kit so that, after the vinegar application, you can carefully pick the cnidae out instead of scraping them across your skin. Additionally, CoastalLiving.com cites the same Toxins paper, stating that, although ice might sound like a soothing solution in the moment, cold temperatures actually preserve the venom, whereas applying heat will permanently deactivate the venom's toxicity. With the proper information and a little foresight, jellyfish stings don't have to ruin your next day at the beach.