Don’t pee on your friend’s jellyfish sting! This 'cure' is a myth

The highly-venomous box jellyfish measuring 10–15cm wide each caught along the northern coast of Penang island by Cemacs scientists using special nets.

IMAGINE the scene: your friend gets stung by a jellyfish, and in response, you pee on him. This “cure” for jellyfish stings, though widely believed for decades, is a myth. Some might still think it offers quick relief while a friend is in agony.

“Urine can make the stings worse for your friend. We don’t really know how this tale came about, but we suspect it could be because people think urine is slightly acidic,” said marine biologist Professor Datuk Dr Aileen Tan.

The pH value of urine ranges from four to eight, depending on hydration levels (the lower the number, the more acidic a liquid is, with seven being neutral).

“That’s not acidic enough,” stressed Prof Tan.

Instead, many beaches in Thailand, Australia and other countries have stations with bottles of white vinegar, the kind you can buy for a little over RM2 in any store.

“Household vinegar has a pH value of two to three. It won’t hurt your skin and will cause the stingers to withdraw and not inject more venom into the victim,” she explained.

Jellyfish tentacles, lined with hundreds of nearly microscopic stingers (cnidocytes), can be translucent and as fine as strands of human hair.

When victims are stung and rush to the beach, they often tear off the tentacles, which remain wrapped around their bodies and continue to pump venom.

“Dribble vinegar over the stung area for a few minutes to deactivate the stingers. Then carefully peel away the tentacle strands and seek medical attention,” advised Prof Tan, who is also director of Universiti Sains Malaysia’s Centre for Marine and Coastal Studies (Cemacs) in Penang.

Most jellyfish stings only cause mild prickling sensations for humans, but some species, like the box jellyfish, can cause excruciating pain and even life-threatening symptoms for young children and senior citizens.

“Just having a bottle of vinegar in your bag when your family and you go to the beach can save you a lot of problems,” she noted.

Prof Tan recently collaborated with 27 scientists from nine countries under the UN Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission for the Western Pacific and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science to produce a book titled General Management Guide for Harmful Jellyfish Stings in the Western Pacific and Adjacent Areas. Cemacs led the project, which aims to help any group involved in marine activities manage jellyfish threats.

For a copy of the book, contact Cemacs, Universiti Sains Malaysia, 11800 Penang (04-653 3500).

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