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Here’s a complete guide on how to treat nettle stings fast in a way that stops them from itching and stinging really quickly. Plus, the low down on whether things like dock leaves and toothpaste actually work (clue: the one you probably think might work isn’t necessarily the one that does).
But first up, let’s look at what you should do to treat a nettle sting quickly and effectively.
THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO TREATING NETTLE STINGS
This guide will explain what you need to do if you or someone else gets stung by a nettle, including how to treat the sting and what to look out for in case of a severe allergic reaction.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT NETTLES
WHERE YOU WILL ENCOUNTER NETTLES
Nettles, particularly the common or stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), have a reputation for their stinging hairs or spines known as trichomes, which can cause an uncomfortable rash when they come into contact with skin.
Stinging nettles thrive in a wide range of places, but they have a particular fondness for rich, moist, nitrogenous soils. This includes gardens, parks, waste grounds, and alongside footpaths and roads. They also frequently colonise the banks of rivers and streams. Stinging nettles are also a common sight in forested areas.
WHY DO NETTLES STING?
Nettle stings are caused by the tiny, hollow, needle-like trichomes found on the leaves and stems of the plant.
Trichomes are particularly dense on the underside of the leaves and the younger parts of the plant.
The hollow inside of a trichome is filled with a mixture of chemicals that cause the nettle’s sting. These chemicals include histamine, acetylcholine and serotonin.
When your skin brushes against the trichomes, the tips break off, and the remaining parts of the trichomes can pierce the skin like needles, injecting the irritant chemicals into your body. This is what causes the characteristic stinging sensation of a nettle sting.
The trichomes stay lodged in the skin, much like a splinter. This is important to know because it will help you understand why rubbing at a nettle sting is a bad idea.
The chemicals cause an inflammatory response, leading to symptoms such as itching, redness, and swelling.
The discomfort from a nettle sting typically lasts for a few hours, although it may persist for up to 24-48 hours without treatment.
So, what are the steps you need to follow to ease the stinging sensation?
STEPS TO FOLLOW AFTER BEING STUNG BY A NETTLE
There are only three simple steps you need to follow to ease the stinging caused by a nettle.
STEP 1. LEAVE THE AFFECTED AREA ALONE FOR A FEW MINUTES
Now I know that this piece of advice seems counterintuitive, particularly if you have a child who is screaming with pain.
However, it is really important to allow the chemicals from the nettle time to dry on the skin because this will make it much easier to remove them and the trichomes and shorten the amount of time that the person who has been stung is in pain.
So, what on earth do you do to distract and calm a distraught child whilst the chemicals dry? Here’s a quick list of ideas:
- Sing some nursery rhymes
- Start a game of I-Spy
- Give them their favourite comfort toy if you have it with you
- Get them to take some sips of water
- Whip out your phone and show them a quick cartoon or let them play on a favourite app.
STEP 2. CLEAN THE AREA
Once you’ve allowed the chemicals to dry, you can wash the affected area of the skin gently with cool water to remove the chemicals causing the stinging sensation. Avoid using hot water, as it may enhance the histamine response, increasing itching and discomfort.
It is a good idea to always carry a water bottle with you, even on the shortest of walks in an area where there are likely to be stinging nettles.
3. REMOVE THE TRICHOMES
Next, carefully remove any visible trichomes from the skin. There are several ways to do this. Here are a few ways that work really well:
- The edge of a credit card
- Sticky tape
The tape or plaster method can be particularly effective as it is less likely to cause further skin irritation. Press the sticky tape or plaster to the affected area, then pull it off to lift out the trichomes that have been trapped in the skin.
You might need to use tape or plaster a couple of times to get out all the trichomes.
Do not rub or scratch the area, as this can spread the nettle’s chemicals and worsen the sting.
The aim is to remove as many trichomes as possible without irritating the area further or spreading the irritating chemicals.
There are several types of over-the-counter treatments that can provide relief from nettle stings:
- Antihistamines: These can help to reduce itching and inflammation. Brands available in the UK include Benadryl and Piriton. But own brands work just as well and cost a fraction of the price.
- Hydrocortisone Cream: This can reduce inflammation and redness. A common brand available in the UK is Hc45.
- Calamine Lotion: This can help to soothe the itching and discomfort associated with nettle stings.
- Aloe Vera Gel: This natural product can provide cooling relief and promote healing of the affected skin.
Always follow the instructions on the packaging of these products, and consult a pharmacist or doctor if you’re unsure.
Related: How to deal with hay fever
USING TOOTHPASTE TO SOOTHE A NETTLE STING
Now, here’s a curve ball for you. Did you know you can use some types of toothpaste to treat a nettle sting?
Yep, you read that correctly, toothpaste!
Certain toothpaste, particularly those containing baking soda or mild menthol, can help to soothe nettle stings.
Apply a small amount of toothpaste to the affected area and let it dry. The toothpaste will help soothe the sting and can also help draw out some of the chemicals from the nettle sting.
The reason why toothpaste may help relieve nettle stings is largely due to its formulation. Most toothpaste contains ingredients such as baking soda, menthol, and/or other compounds which have soothing properties.
Baking soda has mild antiseptic and antibacterial properties and is known to soothe inflammation.
Meanwhile, menthol gives a cooling sensation to the skin, which can also help to numb the area slightly and give temporary relief.
Do please note, though, that toothpaste will only provide temporary relief and is not clinically proven as a remedy for nettle stings. So, it is best used as a last resort if, for some reason, you can’t do the steps listed above.
The best type of toothpaste to use is the more basic kind that is mint flavoured and contains baking soda.
You should avoid using the following types of toothpaste:
- Whitening Toothpaste: These types of toothpaste often contain abrasive ingredients or chemicals designed to remove stains from teeth. These components may potentially irritate the skin, especially if it’s already inflamed from a nettle sting.
- Gel Toothpaste: Lots of gel toothpaste contains artificial colours and other additives that might not be as soothing as traditional paste toothpaste.
- Toothpaste with High Fluoride Content: While fluoride is good for teeth, in high concentrations, it can cause skin irritation, especially on sensitive or inflamed skin.
- Toothpaste with Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS): SLS is a common ingredient in many toothpastes, but it’s also a known skin irritant. If the skin is already inflamed from a nettle sting, SLS could potentially exacerbate the irritation.
SIGNS OF A SEVERE ALLERGIC REACTION
While a nettle sting is usually a minor annoyance, it’s important to be aware of the potential for a more serious reaction and to know how to respond if this happens.
Occasionally someone can have a more severe allergic reaction, known as anaphylaxis. Symptoms of anaphylaxis can include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Swelling of the face, lips, or throat
- Rapid heartbeat
- Dizziness or fainting
- Nausea or vomiting
- Loss of consciousness
If you or someone else experiences these symptoms after a nettle sting, you need to seek immediate medical attention.
HOW NOT TO TREAT NETTLE STINGS
Until I schooled myself in how actually to treat nettle stings, the first thing I would think of if I thought about getting stung by a nettle was dock leaves.
It’s not surprising really, because the whole thing of using dock leaves to treat nettle stings is one of the most established old folklores.
Unfortunately, the whole dock leaf thing isn’t backed up by any scientific evidence.
And even more unfortunately, rubbing anything on a patch of skin that’s been stung is only likely to serve to irritate the skin more and drive the trichomes further into the skin.
A FINAL THOUGHT ON NETTLE STINGS
Ultimately the best way to avoid the pain of nettle stings is to avoid getting stung in the first place!
So, always keep an eye out for nettles and school your kids to know what they look like.
Consider wearing long trousers or jeans and long-sleeved tops to protect your skin. Thin cloth, summer-weight fabric will also help protect your skin from the sun’s rays, so it’s a double win.
Wear gloves if you are gardening or clearing away debris or scrubland.
Oh, and if you are camping, be careful where you pitch your tent. The last thing you want is to stumble out in the night into a patch of nettles.
Hello, I’m Luci, founder of Mums Make Lists (Est. 2011). Over the last decade or so, I have combined my experience as a mum, journalist and shopping editor to create useful guides and lists of ideas and inspiration to make it easier for busy parents to plan and host kids’ parties and find great gifts. Read more.