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Stinging Nettles

Q: What can you do about stinging nettles?

A: Go to Maine, or upper Chesapeake Bay where the water is fresh, such as in the Sassafras River. Or go anywhere else where they aren’t. But that’s easy to say. What if you can’t go to any of those places?

Stinging nettles are found along much of the East Coast, with some areas much worse than others. To get an idea of the potential seriousness of infestations, check out a NOAA Web site that helps in predicting heavy concentrations of them in the Chesapeake (coast, enter “nettle” in the search window).

There are different types of creatures that people refer to as stinging nettles. I’m told the proper name is sea nettles. Most are gelatinous and have tentacles. Those with red tentacles seem to cause the most pain. When I was growing up on the rivers of Tidewater, Va., we called them “blood suckers,” because the welt they left was red and a little sticky. Some gelatinous creatures, often referred to as jellyfish, do not sting, but it’s no fun finding out for sure — if you don’t already know — whether that “thing” in the water is the bad type.

Depending on the person and the type of creature, stings can range from mildly painful to potentially deadly. In some waters, particularly tropical, you can encounter the Portuguese man-of-war. It looks like an odd-shaped bluish/purple (usually) balloon floating on the surface with tentacles underneath. Sometimes incorrectly referred to as jellyfish, their sting is extremely painful, and they should be avoided. They aren’t what I’m talking about here.

If you’re lucky enough not to know much about stinging nettles firsthand and would like to improve your education, there are various sources that are much better than diving into infested waters on a summer day. You might check out Dr. Jennifer E. Purcell’s report Jellyfish in Chesapeake Bay and Nearby Waters. It’s posted at (enter “nettle” in the search window).

Some people deal with stinging nettles by avoiding them. Unfortunately, during a bad season, this means staying out of the water. During some summers, it seems as if you can walk across the water on them; other times you barely see any all season. During these times people keep a watchful eye while in the water. However, it’s possible to get stung even by small pieces of a stinging nettle that may have broken off from wave action or other causes. These are hard to see, and the tentacles of these creatures are often around 3 feet long.

There’s a product called the Nettle Net BOATPOOL, which is a mesh pool suspended in the water from floats. I saw the first one off the stern of the inventor’s sailboat years ago in Mobjack Bay. It can be deployed from a dock or your boat, and the company says it’s designed to keep the stinging creatures out. The pool comes in three diameters (8, 12 and 20 feet), and information is available on the company site (

Company president David Nolte says it’s a good time to be a stinging sea nettle. Their populations are on the increase along the East Coast, particularly in New Jersey (Barnegat Bay and Toms River) and North Carolina (Albemarle and Pamlico sounds). Contributing to this growth is the warming and increased acidity of waters, overfishing and decline of predators (large fish and sea turtles), and eutrophication (excess nitrogen in the water, which fuels the food chain below the nettles).

Some people deal with nettles by trying to protect themselves. I’ve seen people use everything from long sleeve T-shirts to nylon stockings and wetsuits. Of course, none of these gives complete protection, and all can exacerbate the situation if a piece of nettle gets inside. Some people apply heavy grease. I’ve known of salvage divers who rub on copious amounts of motor oil to protect themselves from sea lice, which are tiny, devilish creatures (usually found in tropical waters) that cause intolerably itchy rashes and welts for most victims (including me). Some use Vaseline or heavy applications of oily, water-resistant suntan lotion. This presumably would be much healthier than motor oil.

There is a product I’ve heard about and seen used by others but haven’t tried. It’s a lotion called SafeSea, which contains an ingredient that purports to protect users from jellyfish and sea lice. It comes with or without sunblock. And if you do get stung, there’s also a Jellyfish After Sting Gel (check

Some people swear by home-brewed remedies if they get stung — various potions applied directly to the area of the sting, including meat tenderizer, vinegar and alcohol. When I was a kid, we rubbed smelly river mud on the affected area and thought this helped immensely. But the last time I tried it I was far less impressed with its effect. It’s been my experience, after many years of getting stung, that nothing really works well except the passage of time.

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This article originally appeared in the June 2008 issue.