Peeing on a jellyfish sting: cure or old wives’ tale?

jellyfish friends

I was watching a whole bunch of Friends clips on youtube (because I’m a weird human being who is apparently incapable of using her time effectively) and I came across one in which Monica gets stung by a jellyfish on the beach. Joey claims that he saw a documentary on the Discovery Channel that talked about peeing on the sting site as a cure for the pain. This got me to thinking. I’d heard about this ‘cure’ for a long time but I wasn’t entirely sure if there was some truth to it. So I then spent the next half an hour googling it (I told you, I don’t use my time effectively). Turns out this ‘cure’ is complete rubbish.

Jellyfish are not well-loved creatures, probably because they are known to sting you and when that happens it usually hurts a hell of a lot (nobody likes wasps either, for the exact same reason). The pain is caused by venom found in organelles, called nematocysts, that are found in the stinging cells (a.k.a cnidocytes) located in the tentacles of the jellyfish. Once stung, the venom creates a red rash on the skin which can feel itchy and usually throbs painfully. Scratching the sting is a big mistake though, because it activates the nematocysts that are still attached to the skin, causing them to release more venom, and so the sting hurts more.

The recommended treatment for a jellyfish sting is to rinse the sting site in saltwater, which should be easy since you’re already by the sea. Apparently, this rinsing deactivates the nematocysts, ceasing the pain. But rinsing with freshwater (such as bottled water you may have brought with you to the beach) seems to have an opposite effect. This is because freshwater changes the concentration of salts inside the cnidocyte, which increases the stinging power. This process is known as osmosis, as the salts inside the cnidocyte move from an area of high concentration (inside the cnidocyte) to an area of low concentration (outside the cnidocyte). In response to this unbalance of salts, the nematocysts within the cnidocytes release more venom, causing more pain!

Urine contains salts and electrolytes though, so it should be the perfect cure for a jellyfish sting right? Wrong. The concentration of salts in your urine varies daily, depending on what you’ve had to eat and drink. So if there aren’t enough salts in your urine at the time in which you, or someone you know, gets stung, the urine acts in a similar way to freshwater and the sting is going to hurt, a lot.

So if you ever get stung by a jellyfish (I hope that never happens, I’m just saying) don’t let anyone pee on you, even if they’re convinced it’ll work. Wash the sting in the sea, take a pain killer, and ride it out. Then send the person who wanted to pee on you to this blog so that they can learn a thing or two…

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