Study seeks best treatment for jellyfish stings

Stung. Now what?

Vinegar can make jellyfish stings worse.
  • Vinegar can make jellyfish stings worse.

Jellyfish stings are a familiar part of the beachgoing experience. But, says UC San Diego medical student John Stevenson, there is no conclusive data on treatment. Along with two UC San Diego doctors, Richard Clark and Nicholas Ward, Stevenson is conducting a study.

Clark, founder of the UC San Diego division of medical toxicology, said, “Much of the treatments proposed are from anecdotal reports and not science.”

The most common reaction to jellyfish stings from local species is a slight redness or rash, which lifeguards treat with hot water, vinegar, or first-aid spray containing alcohol or lidocaine. The Mayo Clinic recommends applying a baking-soda paste to deactivate stingers and ice packs to relieve pain. Some say human urine helps, a myth made more popular by an episode of Friends.

“Based on our reading, we recommend removing any tentacles with tweezers or washing with saltwater, and then treating the affected area by soaking it in hot water or a local anesthetic,” advised Stevenson.

Jelly specialist and Birch Aquarium husbandry employee Vince Levesque, says, “Vinegar can cause chrysaora nematocysts to fire, so it can have the opposite effect.”

For the study, I received six stings in one afternoon. Stevenson had a tub of saltwater and several sea nettles, from which he clipped tentacles and laid them directly on our forearms. Some of the specimens were duds — no sting at all. When the nemotacysts did fire, the toxin produced a slight stinging sensation that did not cause me or the other subjects to flinch.

With the first treatment, first-aid spray with alcohol, I felt no effect on the sting. Same with vinegar, despite Levesque’s warning that it might get worse. Antihistamine spray and lidocaine gel didn’t seem to do anything, either. Soaking my arm in warm water seemed to work the best.

The team expects to complete a statistical analysis and have results ready in one to two months.

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