Stinging nettles

Nettles are plants with sharp hairs on their leaves. If you touch them, these hairs inject irritants into the skin, making it itchy, red and swollen.

Summary

Stinging nettle is a common weed. It’s found in gardens, waste areas, near where animals live, and around moist areas such as creeks.

In New Zealand there are 3 species: the native ongaonga (giant tree nettle), and 2 introduced varieties.

Photo of an ongaonga or giant tree nettle. It has serrated green leaves with sharp white hairs sticking out from the middle of the leaf, and from the tip of each serration.
Photo of ongaonga (giant tree nettle), by Avenue.
Photo of introduced nettle Urtica dioica, which has rounded green leaves with soft serrated edges.
Photo of introduced nettle Urtica dioica, by Michael Gasperl / CC BY 3.0.
Photo of introduced nettle Urtica urens, which has sharp white hairs growing from the stalk of the plant.
Photo of introduced nettle Urtica urens, by Phil Bendle / CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.

 

Symptoms

If you or a family member has been stung by nettles, the symptoms will usually be:

  • burning and itching, for a short time
  • redness, weals and swelling, sometimes small blisters
  • numbness or pins and needles that can last for days.

Most nettle stings cause no further problems and require no treatment.

Treatment

Self care for nettle stings

  • Wash the area with soap and water as soon as possible to relieve the sting and remove the nettle hairs. If no water is available, clean the area with a cloth or other available material.
  • Apply a paste of baking soda and water.
  • Avoid scratching or rubbing the itchy areas.
  • Use cool, light, bedding and clothing as this will help relieve itching.
  • Avoid extreme heat – have lukewarm baths and showers.
  • Apply cold compresses.
  • Antihistamines such as Telfast, Claratyne and Phenergan may relieve itching and swelling. A cream with hydrocortisone will reduce inflammation. You can get these from your pharmacy.

Medicine precautions

  1. Do not give aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) or aspirin-containing products to anyone 18 years or younger because of the risk of a serious illness called Reye’s syndrome.
  2. Take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) with food or milk to prevent stomach irritation. Do not give NSAIDs to anyone with:
    • NSAID-induced asthma
    • increased risk of bleeding, such as ulcer disease, a bleeding disorder, if taking blood thinners (anticoagulants), or following surgery, significant trauma or major dental work
    • an allergy to NSAIDs.
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