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Taking The Sting Out Of Jellyfish Isn't Easy

If you're stung by a jellyfish or Portuguese man-o-war, how do you treat the pain?

Some emergency room docs at the University of California, San Diego, Medical Center pored over all the scientific papers they could find to come up with answers based on evidence instead of intuition.

Unfortunately, there's no one approach that works for everything. And some can backfire. "Some of the remedies promoted by word of mouth and online, such as vinegar, actually make the pain worse with certain species of jellyfish," UCSD's Dr. Nicholas T. Ward said in a statement.

The findings were published this week in the Annals of Emergency Medicine.

Your best bets? Carefully remove the tentacles and their stinging cells, or nematocysts, stuck in your skin. Then wash with hot water, or use saltwater if you're away from a bathroom or shower.

If you've got some, rub a local anesthetic, such as lidocaine or benzocaine, on your painful skin. The anesthetic may dull the pain. The medicine may also squelch the stinging cells of jellyfish still stuck in your skin.

But it's complicated. "A treatment beneficial for one species may in fact worsen an envenomation from another," the doctors note in the paper.

Take vinegar, for example, which is recommended pretty widely. The scientific data, such as they are, suggest that this acidic solution may intensify pain for stings from most jellyfish.

But vinegar may help with the Portuguese-man-o-war.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Hensley edits stories about health, biomedical research and pharmaceuticals for NPR's Science desk. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has led the desk's reporting on the development of vaccines against the coronavirus.