How to Treat a Jellyfish Sting

Saltwater, which often isn't far from a jellyfish sting site, is believed to keep a jellyfish from releasing more venom. Stephen Rees/Shutterstock

Anyone who's ever been stung by a jellyfish knows that when the pain first hits, you'd do just about anything to make it stop.

Well ... just about anything.

The age-old, wrong-headed and decidedly creepy remedy for a jellyfish sting might be the exception. Check the credentials of anyone who tells you, with a straight face, that peeing on a jellyfish sting is a good idea. Peeing on a jellyfish sting may well do more harm than good.

"Some of the remedies promoted by word of mouth and online ... actually make the pain worse with certain species of jellyfish," Dr. Nicholas T. Ward of the University of California-San Diego's Department of Emergency Medicine says in a 2012 study published by the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP). "Current evidence suggests hot water and topical lidocaine, which is available at local pharmacies, may be more universally beneficial in treating pain from a jellyfish sting."

It's difficult to pinpoint just where and when the idea of peeing on a jellyfish sting originated. Probably, you'd think, because no one wants to take credit for it.

If you strain hard enough, though, it's not that difficult to see why this odd home remedy might sound somewhat reasonable. "You want to do what?"

For one, as is the case with many injuries of this type, warmth (rather than ice or ice packs) helps soothe the pain of a jellyfish sting. And pee, from the original source anyway, provides some warmth.

But maybe warm water instead? Or even hot water?

"Our research showed that immersing the sting in hot water was 50 percent more effective than ice packs in relieving pain," professor Angela Webster of the University of Sydney said in a 2013 study on the subject that was published in the Cochrane Library.

The ACEP study favors hot water and lidocaine, a topical anesthetic that relieves itching, burning and pain from skin inflammations.

Vinegar might work ... but might not

A sign at an Australian beach encourages people to be aware of jellyfish
A sign at an Australian beach encourages people to be aware of jellyfish. Tim Gillin/flickr

Many reputable health organizations, including the American Red Cross and the American Heart Association, have suggested flooding a jellyfish sting with vinegar. It is believed to help neutralize the stingers — called nematocysts — left behind by brushing up against a jellyfish tentacle.

In a 2017 study, two researchers from the University of Hawaii at Mānoa found that of all the home-style remedies to treat a jellyfish sting, only vinegar was a good idea. Still, they found it was less effective on stings from certain types of jellyfish, like Chironex fleckeri, a deadly venomous box jellyfish known as the sea wasp.

Those findings were echoed in a 2014 study from James Cook University in Australia — they know jellyfish in Australia — which suggested that vinegar keeps un-fired nematocysts from releasing venom, but may actually make those stingers that already have envenomated the victim release even more. That would make using vinegar on a sting potentially dangerous.

Best practices

So what to do when someone has been stung? Obviously, if the victim is in extreme distress and having trouble breathing — it happens, occasionally, with the more venomous jellyfish, like box jellyfish — a trip to the emergency room might be needed.

But for most stings, experts suggest rinsing the area immediately with saltwater, which is believed to keep the nematocysts from releasing more venom.

After it's cleaned, bathe the area in extremely hot water (some may prefer ice) and apply something like lidocaine. If an over-the-counter pain reliever like aspirin or ibuprofen is needed, that's fine.

View Article Sources
  1. Ping J, Onizuka N. Epidemiology of Jellyfish Stings Presented to an American Urban Emergency DepartmentHawaii Med J. 2011;70(10):217-219.

  2. Cision PR Newswire. Don't Pee on that Jellyfish Sting!. Published June 07, 2012.

  3. Ward NT, Darracq MA, Tomaszewski C, Clark RF. Evidence-Based Treatment of Jellyfish Stings in North America and HawaiiAnn Emerg Med. 2012;60(4):399-414. doi:10.1016/j.annemergmed.2012.04.010

  4. Cegolon L, Heymann WC, Lange JH, Mastrangelo G. Jellyfish Stings and Their Management: A ReviewMar Drugs. 2013;11(2):523-550. doi:10.3390/md11020523

  5. The University of Sydney. Taking the heat out of jellyfish stings. Published December 13, 2013.

  6. Li L, McGee RG, Isbister G, Webster AC. Interventions for the symptoms and signs resulting from jellyfish stingsCochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013;(12):CD009688. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD009688.pub2

  7. Yanagihara A, Wilcox C. Cubozoan Sting-Site Seawater Rinse, Scraping, and Ice Can Increase Venom Load: Upending Current First Aid RecommendationsToxins. 2017;9(3):105. doi:10.3390/toxins9030105

  8. Welfare P, Little M, Pereira P, Seymour J. An in-vitro examination of the effect of vinegar on discharged nematocysts of Chironex fleckeriDiving Hyperb Med. 2014;44(1):30-34.

  9. Cleveland Clinic. Jellyfish Stings: Management and Treatment. Updated May 22, 2018