Ask a seasoned surfer what to do if you get stung by a tropical stinger like a box jellyfish or irukandji and chances are the answer will be along the lines of “wee on it”.
Is this a gross but effective treatment, or simply a watery myth? We put the question to jellyfish expert Lisa Gershwin.
“Rather than answering yes or no, because that’s too easy, I’ll ask you a question. Is your wee right now acidic or alkaline?”
Well, that’s kind of a personal question, Dr Gershwin. And what’s that got to do with stingers anyway?
It comes down to a combination of chemistry and how a tropical jelly’s stinging cells work.
When you’re first stung by a jellyfish, you’ve only taken on a fraction of the venom, with the remaining 90 per cent or so still contained in stinging cells sticking to your skin.
Treating these stinging cells with something acidic disables them, immediately and permanently.
Treating them with something alkaline — or even just with fresh water — causes them to fire, injecting you with even more venom.
That’s why Dr Gershwin’s nosy question about the acidity of the liquid currently in your bladder really could be a matter of life and death.
“If it’s in an acidic state it works about 25 per cent as well as vinegar. Which means 25 per cent of the stinging cells will be neutralised and the rest will be discharged,” she said.
“If it’s in an alkaline state, it will discharge 100 per cent of the stinging cells.
Dr Gershwin said rather than playing urinary roulette, folks in the tropics should just keep a bottle of vinegar in the car.
“You put vinegar in the boot of the car, it’s not going to go off. And that way you don’t have to think about it every time. You’ve just got it,” she said.
“If there’s something that can make a difference to your life, it’s worth planning ahead for.”
The vinegar won’t help with the pain though — for that, follow the Australian Resuscitation Council’s advice of using a cold pack or ice, as long as it’s wrapped in a dry plastic bag. Remember, fresh water can cause more stinging cells to fire.
‘Jellies don’t sting locals’ and other myths
Box jellyfish inhabit tropical Australian waters and their sting can be deadly.
The peeing-on-a-jellyfish-sting myth is one of many misconceptions Dr Gershwin hears, most frequently from experienced swimmers and surfers.
“It generally comes with a dangerous mix of knowing too much and not enough. For example, people say to me things like ‘I’ve been living here for years and I know they don’t occur here’,” she said.
Other myths Dr Gershwin hears are that jellies don’t sting locals, or people with dark skin, or people with light skin, or people with a lot of body hair.
“None of these things are true. Jellyfish sting people with exposed skin,” she said.
“If you have unprotected skin and you encounter a jellyfish you can get stung.
“Deaths are actually quite uncommon but they do occur. And the common denominator is unprotected skin.”
Dr Gershwin said the best protection from getting stung was to swim between the flags on patrolled beaches, and to use a physical barrier such as a full-body lycra suit or neoprene wetsuit.
When to skip a swim
On tropical beaches, Dr Gershwin said warning signs for dangerous stingers such as box jellyfish and irukandji could include:
- Jellybodies on the sand: small pieces of jelly that look like crushed ice or drops of water that haven’t sunk into the sand
- Flat, calm weather with a light northerly breeze
- Clouds of small prawns moving like a school of fish in shallow water, ideal feeding conditions for box jellyfish
- Salps, which look like chains of little jellybodies. These don’t sting but they co-occur with irukanji
- A lot of sealice stings can indicate irukandji are also in the water