Myths vs. Truths of treating jellyfish stings

Photo Credit: Eric Rottinger & Angel Yanagihara

Photo Credit: Eric Rottinger & Angel Yanagihara

Hundreds of people reported being stung by a jellyfish during this most recent influx along south facing Hawaii beaches this week. I wanted to know what are the tried and true methods to treating the painful sting.

We’ve heard over and over again to pee on it, use meat tenderizer and rub sand on it. But do these remedies really work? Or are they just myths that have become tales told by uncle and aunty because that’s what they heard growing up?

UH researcher, Dr. Angel Yanagihara, spends countless hours studying box jellyfish in an effort to better understand them and research how to treat the venom’s effects. Her studies have led to the development of a treatment that was used on Diana Nyad during her 2012 attempt and 2013 swim from Cuba to Florida in jellyfish infested waters. Here’s the first part of my look at the jellyfish influx.

How to treat the sting

Photo Credit: University of Hawaii

Photo Credit: University of Hawaii

So here is the real deal on the best methods to treat a jellyfish and man-o-war sting, according to Yanagihara. First, spray the area with vinegar and then soak in warm water. Urinating on the area “will not hurt, but is also of very limited relief. Vinegar and hot water immersion are better,” she says.

I don’t know who came up with this… but to rub sand on the area after being stung just doesn’t sound right to me, and guess what? It is not a good idea. “By all means do not rub or scrape the area, the cnidae (tiny capsules) can be further stimulated to discharge,” she warned.

Does meat tenderizer work to relieve the pain and itch from the sting?

Yanagihara says, no, “the venom is injected deep into your skin by hollow tubules that act like thousands of hypodermic needles. Papain is an enzyme and does not go through the skin. It would be like applying an milk to the roof of your house and expecting it to appear in your kitchen. The skin is a barrier to large proteins.”

Photo Credit: Laura Arguon

Photo Credit: Laura Arguon

Could people be allergic to jellyfish or man-o-war stings that lead to hospitalization or death.

“The immediate response to jellyfish stings has nothing to do with allergy,” Yanagihara says. “Jellyfish venom is not like bee venom. Jellyfish are a 600-million-year-old class of animals and have a very different venom than bees. The venom of bees is for defensive purposes, while jellyfish use venom to capture and digest prey. The action of jellyfish venom is far faster than bee venom and far more potent.”

Can an Epi pen treat a severe reaction to a jellyfish sting?

Yanagihara says exogenous Epi pens or epinephrine should NOT be used and could be catastrophic. “While epi is absolutely the gold standard for other types of cardiac problems, box jellyfish envenomation induced cardiac PEA is a completely different situation.”

She says her team is working with researchers at Tripler Army Medical Center to guide doctors on how to respond to serious box jelly stings.

For more information on Yanagihara and her research, you can check out this site.