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It wouldn’t be the great outdoors without its share of obstacles and surprises; they’re all part of the adventure, nettle stings included. Knowing what you can do to stop itching from nettles will have you back on the move in no time. Here you’ll find out how to relieve itching from nettle stings when you’re out and about, and how to create a soothing nettle sting remedy when you get home.
Important: If you’re experiencing difficulty breathing after a nettle sting, or if your nettle sting hasn’t disappeared in over 24 hours, call your emergency services immediately.
What causes nettle stings?
Before you know what you can do to stop itching from nettles, it might help to know what causes the sting in the first place. Nettles have stinging hairs on their stem and on the edges of their leaves. These hairs act like a needle, which transfers histamine and formic acid into the surface of your skin. Nettle plants use their hairs to protect themselves from predators. The sting helps to warn predators off, stopping them from eating the plant or uprooting it.
What does a nettle sting look like?
It’s also useful to know how to identify a sting from this particular plant, so that you can be sure it’s a nettle sting remedy you need, rather than a solution for a different kind of reaction. Typically, you’ll see a raised red or pink patch on your skin, with white bumps or spots. You’ll also usually feel a stinging, itching or burning sensation.1
Remedies to relieve itching from nettle stings
Relieving a nettle sting is easier if you can resist touching the rash for the first 10 minutes. Nettle histamines are easier to clean and treat when they’re dry. You want to avoid pushing the chemicals deeper into the skin, as that could prolong the reaction and/or make it more severe.
- Dock leaves. The wilderness may have stung you, but it also provides a handy solution that treats nettle stings. Dock leaf sap contains an antihistamine, which counteracts and soothes nettle stings.3 You can identify them by their large, green, oval leaves. You’ll often find them growing near nettle plants, too – nature is very helpful like that! Rub them gently on the sting to remedy nettle stings.
- Baking soda. Baking soda is one of the simplest of home remedies for nettle stings. It’s an alkaline, which neutralises the nettle sting’s acid. Mix a few drops of cold water with some baking soda in a cup. Then, spread it over the sting using a gentle tissue – make sure they are soft enough to relieve nettle stings gently, but strong enough to administer the mixture effectively.5
- Wash it. Soap is also an alkaline so it can help treat nettle stings. Run cold water over your sting, then use a soft tissue, cold water, and some diluted dish soap to clean the area. If you want to be really thorough, try using sticky tape or a wax strip to remove any of the nettle’s hairs that might still be in your skin.4
Other ways to soothe nettle sting discomfort
You can use your choice of nettle sting remedy alongside other self-care strategies to help ease itchiness. You might want to apply a clean cold compress to the area, or an ice pack wrapped in a tea towel.
If you’re struggling with itching at night, sleep in light, cool clothing under light, cool bedding. In fact, wearing loose clothing is a good idea whatever the time of day. Restrictive, tight clothing can rub against the rash, causing further irritation.
It’s also a good idea to avoid hot showers and baths, as extreme heat can exacerbate it. Opt for cool or lukewarm water instead.
Did you know? Taking cooler, shorter showers saves energy and water. Try setting a 4-minute timer to keep your showers short and sweet, whether you have a nettle sting to soothe – or not! Learn some more ways to save water at home here.
It’s best to avoid extreme heat in general, so if it’s a hot day try to stay somewhere cool. If you’re going outside make sure you avoid direct sunlight getting to your rash. Cover up in loose, long sleeves and/or trousers, to protect your arms and/or legs, if that’s where your rash is.2
Some choose to use over the counter products from the pharmacy, like antihistamines to relieve localised swelling and itching, or hydrocortisone creams in an attempt to reduce inflammation.
What to avoid when you get a nettle sting
The most important thing to remember is not to scratch – as hard as that is! Rubbing the affected areas will only worsen them. That’s because it pushes the chemical further into your skin. Help children leave the rash alone by placing a loose dressing over it, and by distracting them with games and activities or by watching something to take their mind off it.
When to seek medical assistance if a nettle sting remedy doesn’t help
Most people won’t require any extra treatment, but you should seek medical attention if the rash or itching is significant, and home remedies don’t make any difference. Some people can be allergic to nettle stings, and require help straight away. Symptoms to look out for include:
- Breathing problems
- Abdominal pain
- Swelling beneath the skin
- Co-ordination loss
- Weakness in the muscles
If you experience any of these, seek urgent medical assistance. The final four symptoms can occur if you’ve been exposed to nettles for a prolonged period of time, or if a large amount of your skin has been affected.1,2
The home remedies for nettle stings we’ve explored are easy to make and the area should start to calm down in the next 30 minutes or so once administered. While these nettle sting remedies are simple, try wearing more protective clothing to defend against nettles on your next adventure. It’s also a great idea to teach children what nettle plants look like, so they can avoid touching them in the future. Prevention is always better than cure, after all!
1 ‘Nettle Stings’, St John’s Ambulance; 2021
2 ‘Nettle rash’, NHS 111 Wales
3 ‘Investigating leaf adaptations - why do nettles sting?’, Science & Plants for Schools; 2021
4 ‘Stinging Nettles’, Ministry of Heath NZ; 2019
5 ‘Stinging nettle rash: Side effects, prevention, and treatment’, Medical News Today; 2020