Ocean Watch

By Susan Scott

Monday, March 22, 1999

Urine is useless
against pain from
jellyfish sting

ONE morning last week, hundreds of box jellyfish appeared on Waikiki beaches. Lifeguard Landy Blair phoned. "It's going to be a busy day," he said. "You might want to come over."

Landy called me because he and I (along with several other people) are conducting a study on the treatment of jellyfish stings. This is our third year evaluating the effectiveness of hot packs and cold packs on box jellyfish stings.

On windward beaches, where people get stung by Portuguese man-of-wars, we're testing meat tenderizer, fresh water and Sting Aid.

Because of this study, I receive lots of mail asking questions about jellyfish stings. Here are some common ones:

What is the best treatment for jellyfish stings?

For box jellyfish stings, douse the area with vinegar to inactivate any stinging cells that are still on the skin.

Do not use vinegar on Portuguese man-of-war stings. An Australian study reported that vinegar causes stinging cells to fire when poured on some Portuguese man-of-war tentacles.

For these stings, pluck off the tentacles, then rinse the area with water, either salt or fresh. The jury is still out on how fresh water affects stings, but try it. Some sting victims feel better after taking a shower.

So far in our study, some people report good pain relief from hot packs placed on the skin. Others say that cold packs work well. Still others have experienced no relief from either hot or cold packs on their stings.

The best pain treatment for jellyfish stings is by no means a clear call.

Does urinating on jellyfish stings help?

No. At best, this common folk remedy does nothing. At worst, it can fire undischarged stinging cells and make the sting worse.

When my doctor heard about our jellyfish study he said, "Great. I hope you tell people to stop urinating on every cut and sting they get in the ocean."

So I will. Don't do it.

How about putting meat tenderizer on jellyfish stings?

The story of meat tenderizer on Hawaii stings is an interesting one. In 1969, Hawaii dermatologist Harry L. Arnold Jr. got a call from an anxious mother whose 6-year-old had been stung by a Portuguese man-of-war.

Dr. Arnold wrote, "I recalled having recently read a newspaper article suggesting that meat tenderizer would relieve the pain of insect stings, and I impulsively advised the mother to dissolve a teaspoonful in a quarter cup of water and rub the solution into the stings."

The mother arrived at the doctor's office 40 minutes later reporting the pain and marks gone. Of course, these stings usually disappear with no treatment at all. Nevertheless, that was the beginning of the Hawaii tradition of putting meat tenderizer on marine stings.

The problem with this treatment is that it has never been scientifically tested. Several researchers, however, have since tested meat tenderizer on bee and ant stings in lab mice. They found no difference in welt size with meat tenderizer either on the skin, or even injected into it.

The best bet regarding the treatment of ocean stings is to stay up to date with the latest research, a task easy in this computer age. For information on jellyfish sting treatments, check Internet Grateful Med (, which is run by the National Library of Medicine.

And sometime in the future, when we have enough data, you'll find the results of our Hawaii study there too.

Marine science writer Susan Scott's Ocean Watch column
appears Mondays in the Star-Bulletin. Contact her at

E-mail to City Desk

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