Myth Busting: Treating Jellyfish Stings
Over the past year, I’ve been writing a regular column for SisterShip Magazine. It’s a fun format where I take a medical myth and bust it wide open, replacing misinformation with the real thing. My goal, as always, is to educate boaters on handling medical emergencies on the water in a quirky and entertaining way. Please join me for the first installment where we take on the jellyfish.
When I was working as an ER nurse, I was always bucking to have a bright red “hot phone” installed in the department for anyone who was thinking of doing something dodgy. You call me and I’ll tell you what I think. For instance, “I’m thinking of letting my drunken mates pull me behind a pick up truck around a snowy field on the hood of an old car”, or “I’m planning on crossing the lake on my snowmobile since there’s not much open water”. And then I say, “Please don’t do that.” I could have saved so much embarrassment and so many lives.
In the world of offshore medicine, I am asked questions that make the words “Please don’t do that” spring forth again. Now my beloved red phone meets paper. We’re going to bust medical myths, call out the Old Wives, answer the questions that plague us and maybe learn a thing or two about handling medical emergencies on the water.
We’re starting with the jellyfish. These guys aren’t just painful and annoying. They’re a growing public health hazard. The venom of some species can kill. Box jellyfish stings cause more deaths annually than shark attacks!
What NOT to Do When Treating Jellyfish Stings
We’ve all heard, read or seen on TV that when someone is stung by a jellyfish, we should immediately pee on them. Please Don’t Do That! This also applies to scraping off the tentacles with a credit card, dousing them with seawater, applying shaving cream, meat tenderizer, rubbing alcohol, sand, baking soda, ice packs or giving epinephrine. These remedies drag the stingers (called cnidae) across more of the skin or make them discharge more poison into the victim. At best these treatments do nothing, more than likely they will make it worse. Much worse.
What TO DO When Treating Jellyfish Stings
What can we do? There’s actual science involved in this. According to the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Department of Tropical Medicine, first-aid measures taken immediately after a sting, especially when tentacles are still adhered to the skin, can dramatically reduce the amount of venom injected into the skin and improve sting symptoms. If you’re a science dork like me and want to read the whole study, check it out here. If you’re more into the Cliff Notes version, here’s the skinny: first inactivate the attached stingers by dousing them with full strength vinegar or a product called Sting No More®️ Spray, developed specifically for this purpose with Department of Defense funding. After rinsing (or immediately if you don’t have any vinegar or Sting No More®️ handy), carefully pluck the tentacles from the skin with tweezers. Then apply hot packs or hot water, ideally at a temperature of 45°C/113°F, for 45 minutes. Finally, how about a little pain medication? You’ve earned it.
An internet search may give other remedies, but remember you can’t always trust Mr. Google. He’s only as good as the questions we ask him and he doesn’t have malpractice insurance.
Have a medical myth you want busted? Bring it on! Contact me and we’ll get to the bottom of it!
Medical Disclaimer: I am not a physician. I am an offshore medicine certified RN with 20+ years of ER experience and a heck of a lot of common sense. Follow up with your healthcare provider for any questions or concerns. Read my full disclaimer here.