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Does Peeing on a Jellyfish Sting Actually Help?

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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.

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Big Questions
Why Can't Dogs Eat Chocolate?
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Even if you don’t have a dog, you probably know that they can’t eat chocolate; it’s one of the most well-known toxic substances for canines (and felines, for that matter). But just what is it about chocolate that is so toxic to dogs? Why can't dogs eat chocolate when we eat it all the time without incident?

It comes down to theobromine, a chemical in chocolate that humans can metabolize easily, but dogs cannot. “They just can’t break it down as fast as humans and so therefore, when they consume it, it can cause illness,” Mike Topper, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, tells Mental Floss.

The toxic effects of this slow metabolization can range from a mild upset stomach to seizures, heart failure, and even death. If your dog does eat chocolate, they may get thirsty, have diarrhea, and become hyperactive and shaky. If things get really bad, that hyperactivity could turn into seizures, and they could develop an arrhythmia and have a heart attack.

While cats are even more sensitive to theobromine, they’re less likely to eat chocolate in the first place. They’re much more picky eaters, and some research has found that they can’t taste sweetness. Dogs, on the other hand, are much more likely to sit at your feet with those big, mournful eyes begging for a taste of whatever you're eating, including chocolate. (They've also been known to just swipe it off the counter when you’re not looking.)

If your dog gets a hold of your favorite candy bar, it’s best to get them to the vet within two hours. The theobromine is metabolized slowly, “therefore, if we can get it out of the stomach there will be less there to metabolize,” Topper says. Your vet might be able to induce vomiting and give your dog activated charcoal to block the absorption of the theobromine. Intravenous fluids can also help flush it out of your dog’s system before it becomes lethal.

The toxicity varies based on what kind of chocolate it is (milk chocolate has a lower dose of theobromine than dark chocolate, and baking chocolate has an especially concentrated dose), the size of your dog, and whether or not the dog has preexisting health problems, like kidney or heart issues. While any dog is going to get sick, a small, old, or unhealthy dog won't be able to handle the toxic effects as well as a large, young, healthy dog could. “A Great Dane who eats two Hershey’s kisses may not have the same [reaction] that a miniature Chihuahua that eats four Hershey’s kisses has,” Topper explains. The former might only get diarrhea, while the latter probably needs veterinary attention.

Even if you have a big dog, you shouldn’t just play it by ear, though. PetMD has a handy calculator to see just what risk levels your dog faces if he or she eats chocolate, based on the dog’s size and the amount eaten. But if your dog has already ingested chocolate, petMD shouldn’t be your go-to source. Call your vet's office, where they are already familiar with your dog’s size, age, and condition. They can give you the best advice on how toxic the dose might be and how urgent the situation is.

So if your dog eats chocolate, you’re better off paying a few hundred dollars at the vet to make your dog puke than waiting until it’s too late.

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

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Big Questions
What is Duck Sauce?
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A plate of Chinese takeout with egg rolls and duck sauce
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We know that our favorite Chinese takeout is not really authentically Chinese, but more of an Americanized series of menu options very loosely derived from overseas inspiration. (Chinese citizens probably wouldn’t recognize chop suey or orange-glazed chicken, and fortune cookies are of Japanese origin.) It would also be unusual for "real" Chinese meals to be accompanied by a generous amount of sauce packets.

Here in the U.S., these condiments are a staple of Chinese takeout. But one in particular—“duck sauce”—doesn’t really offer a lot of information about itself. What exactly is it that we’re pouring over our egg rolls?

Smithsonian.com conducted a sauce-related investigation and made an interesting discovery, particularly if you’re not prone to sampling Chinese takeout when traveling cross-country. On the East Coast, duck sauce is similar to sweet-and-sour sauce, only fruitier; in New England, it’s brown, chunky, and served on tables; and on the West Coast, it’s almost unheard of.

While the name can describe different sauces, associating it with duck probably stems from the fact that the popular Chinese dish Peking duck is typically served with a soybean-based sauce. When dishes began to be imported to the States, the Americanization of the food involved creating a sweeter alternative using apricots that was dubbed duck sauce. (In New England, using applesauce and molasses was more common.)

But why isn’t it easily found on the West Coast? Many sauce companies are based in New York and were in operation after Chinese food had already gained a foothold in California. Attempts to expand didn’t go well, and so Chinese food aficionados will experience slightly different tastes depending on their geography. But regardless of where they are, or whether they're using the condiment as a dipping sauce for their egg rolls or a dressing for their duck, diners can rest assured that no ducks were harmed in the making of their duck sauce.

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

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