Does Peeing on a Jellyfish Sting Actually Help?

Matt Cardy / Getty Images
Matt Cardy / Getty Images

The sting of a jellyfish comes from specialized cells in the surface of its tentacles called cnidocytes. Each small, bulb-shaped cell holds a barbed, threadlike tube, called a nematocyst, filled with venom. On the outside of each cell is a tiny hair called a cnicocil. When this “hair trigger” is disturbed, the cell’s toxic harpoon explodes from its capsule and into the skin of the jellyfish’s prey, or an unlucky swimmer.

The amount and type of venom, and the effect that it causes, depends on the type of jellyfish, the number of nematocysts involved, and the area and thickness of the skin they strike. Whatever the variables, a sting is never exactly pleasant.

Often, after a human gets stung, there’s a tentacle or two that gets ripped off and left behind on their skin. The first step to treating the sting is removing the tentacles without triggering any unfired nematocysts and making things worse.

Pressure triggers the cells, so you can’t just pick them off (whoever is doing the picking is just going to get stung on the fingers, too). Certain chemical changes, like throwing off the salt balance between the outside and inside of the cell, can also can also cause the stingers to fire. This is why urine is often no good. Sure, urine contains salts, but it's just too variable. Concentrated urine might do the trick, and there are anecdotal reports from sting victims that it helps relieve some of the pain, but if the peeing rescuer is well-hydrated, the urine will be too diluted with water and make the stingers fire. What’s more, while urine is sterile, it has to pass through the germ-laden urethra to get out, and can lead to a bacterial infection of the sting wound.

What You Can Do Instead of Urinating on Your Friends

So, if Friends lied to us (gasp) and peeing on a sting runs the risk of making matters worse, what should you use to clean and treat the wound? Vinegar is usually the way to go -- just the plain white stuff with 5% acetic acid. It neutralizes unfired nematocysts so they can't sting anymore, and research (see here and here) has shown it to be one of the better post-sting rinses, especially when combined with the topical anaesthetic lidocaine.

When the one-two punch of vinegar and lidocaine isn’t available (and who brings vinegar on a swim?), sea water (the warmer, the better) is also good for rinsing away the remaining nematocysts. Once the stinging cells are deactivated, the stuck bits of tentacle can be picked off or scraped away with a credit card.

A word of caution, though: vinegar might not be the best treatment depending on the creature that stung you. Acetic acid can actually have the opposite of the intended effect on stings from the jellyfish lookalikes in the genus Physalia, like the Portuguese man o' war. If you’re not sure what stung you, stick with sea water or seek help from a lifeguard or medical professional.

Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?

iStock/bonchan
iStock/bonchan

The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Why Are Poinsettias Associated with Christmas?

iStock
iStock

Certain Christmas traditions never seem to go out of style. Along with wreaths, gingerbread cookies, and reruns of A Christmas Story sits the poinsettia, a red-tinged leafy arrangement that’s become synonymous with the holiday. Upwards of 100 million of them are sold in the six weeks before December 25.

Why do people associate the potted plant with seasonal cheer? Chalk it up to some brilliant marketing.

In 1900, a German immigrant named Albert Ecke was planning to move his family to Fiji. Along the way, they became enamored of the beautiful sights found in Los Angeles—specifically, the wild-growing poinsettia, which was named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the U.S.-Mexican ambassador who first brought it to the States in 1828. Ecke saw the appeal of the plant’s bright red leaves that blossomed in winter (it’s not actually a flower, despite the common assumption) and began marketing it from roadside stands to local growers as "the Christmas plant."

The response was so strong that poinsettias became the Ecke family business, with their crop making up more than 90 percent of all poinsettias sold throughout most of the 20th century: Ecke, his son Paul, and Paul’s son, Paul Jr., offered a unique single-stem arrangement that stood up to shipping, which their competitors couldn’t duplicate. When Paul III took over the business in the 1960s, he began sending arrangements to television networks for use during their holiday specials. In a priceless bit of advertising, stars like Ronald Reagan, Dinah Shore, and Bob Hope were sharing screen time with the plant, leading millions of Americans to associate it with the holiday.

While the Ecke single-stem secret was eventually cracked by other florists—it involved grafting two stems to make one—and their market share dwindled, their innovative marketing ensured that the poinsettia would forever be linked to Christmas.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER