CLOSE

Does Peeing on a Jellyfish Sting Actually Help?

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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
Why Is Holly a Symbol of Christmas?
iStock
iStock

Santa Claus. A big ol’ red-and-white stocking hung by the fire. Nativity scenes. Most classic Christmas imagery is pretty self-explanatory. Then there’s the holly, genus Ilex, which found its way onto holiday cards through a more circuitous route. 

Christmas is kind of the new kid on the block as far as holly symbolism is concerned. The hardy plant’s ability to stay vibrant through the winter made it a natural choice for pre-Christian winter festivals. The Roman feast of Saturnalia, celebrated at the darkest time of the year, celebrated the god of agriculture, creation, and time, and the transition into sunshine and spring. Roman citizens festooned their houses with garlands of evergreens and tied cheery holly clippings to the gifts they exchanged.

The Celtic peoples of ancient Gaul saw great magic in the holly’s bright "berries" (technically drupes) and shiny leaves. They wore holly wreaths and sprigs to many sacred rites and festivals and viewed it as a form of protection from evil spirits. 

Christianity’s spread through what is now Europe was slow and complicated. It was hardly a one-shot, all-or-nothing takeover; few people are eager to give up their way of life. Instead, missionaries in many areas had more luck blending their messages with existing local traditions and beliefs. Holly and decorated trees were used symbolically by new Christians, just as they’d been used in their pagan days.

Today, some people associate the holly bush not with the story of Jesus’s birth but with his death, comparing the plant’s prickly leaves to a crown of thorns and the berries to drops of blood. 

But most people just enjoy it because it’s cheerful, picturesque, and riotously alive at a time when the rest of the world seems to be still and asleep.

NOTE: Holly is as poisonous as it is pretty. Please keep it away from your kids and pets.

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

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
holidays
What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
iStock
iStock

Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios