Mythbusters: does urine treat jellyfish stings?

Jack Coles delves into the depths of this strange myth

Jack Coles
22nd February 2017
Moon jellyfish [Red Sea, Egypt]

For those of you that have only ever seen the ocean on postcards and Titanic gifs, jellyfish are essentially an aquatic bowl of venomous noodles. They sting by having specialised cells (called nematocysts) that, when stimulated, rapidly eject a barb loaded with venom into whatever triggered it to fire. This is usually a fish or another animal the jellyfish uses for food; occasionally, this can be a person.

When a nematocyst triggers, it sometimes gets lodged in the skin of the victim. The jellyfish doesn’t care; partly because it doesn’t have much of a nervous system, but also because nematocysts are single-use cells. The victim, however, may care a bit more, with symptoms ranging from a vague tingling sensation, to death (dependent upon jellyfish species).

One day, somebody decided that possibly urinating on your friend might be the solution to the jellyfish sting; however, this was on television, so many people decided to follow suit. And that guy was called Chandler Bing. Yep, that’s right, we have hit TV show Friends to blame for people thinking that you should pee on a jellyfish sting.

When a nematocyst triggers, it sometimes gets lodged in the skin of the victim. The jellyfish doesn’t care; partly because it doesn’t have much of a nervous system

So, does pee potentially pose problems, or possibly prevent pathogenesis? It is mostly the former, I’m afraid. Urine is a sterile liquid inside the bladder (usually), but the further down the urethra it travels the more likely it is to be contaminated with some bacterial species or another. And getting bacteria into an open wound – such as a jellyfish sting – is almost never a good idea.

With a few species of jellyfish, urine can help. Uric acid is found in urine, and will deactivate any remaining nematocysts by warping their protein structures. But know what works better? Salt water, possibly from the sea. Unless the jellyfish has been kept in a tank and hurled at you several kilometres from the beach, there is little excuse for urinating on a patient instead of washing with sea-water. However vinegar is even better,  which is lucky as there are usually nearby chip shops.

A better, less ad-hoc treatment is to gently remove any remaining tentacles with a stick or a knife (not with your hands) and then wash with clean salted water (around 7g of salt should go in a full 500ml water bottle). After that, you should wash the area again with unsalted water, and then cover the area up with a bandage. If it covers a large area, affects your face or genitals, causes an allergic reaction, or comes from a particularly dangerous species then medical advice should be called for.

With a few species of jellyfish, urine can help. Uric acid is found in urine, and will deactivate any remaining nematocysts by warping their protein structures

Urine can (theoretically) also be used against other stings if you are foolhardy enough to want to try it. Wasp stings are alkaline, so the uric acid will help neutralise this; or alternatively, just use vinegar.

Although Urine isn’t the best for stings, it should be noted that unsalted water is much much worse. Unsalted water causes the nematocysts to swell and burst, releasing even more venom into the wound. Alcohol is also just as bad, as it often stimulates any unfired nematocysts to inject as well, while meat tenderiser (the chemical, not a hammer) has conflicting reports on its efficacy, so should also probably be avoided.Let’s just stick to the salt(water) and vinegar flavours of sting.

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