How and why Stinging Nettles Sting

Introduction to Stinging Nettles

Urtica dioica or sting nettles as it’s more commonly known is a common plant that causes itching and irritation upon contact with skin. Stinging nettles achieves this by having many tiny stinging hairs called trichomes covering it that act like needles. When contact with skin occurs histamines and other chemicals are injected causing a stinging sensation that is irritating for most people. The plant has also been used as a medicine and consumed as a source of food.  

Physical Description of the Plant

                Stinging nettles ranges from 3ft to 7ft tall during the summer, and does not survive the winter. The soft green leaves are 1 in to 6 in long (3cm to 15cm) and are set opposite each other on the thin stems. The plant sometimes has small green or brownish flowers and sometimes also contains small green fruits that consist of many small pods grouped together.

How the plant stings

                The leaves and stems of the plant are covered with both non-stinging hairs and stinging hairs whose tips come off when touched. The hollow sharp hairs are basically needles that inject several chemicals including:

Histamine- Organic nitrogen compound which can act as a neurotransmitter and causes an immune response which triggers an inflammatory response

Acetylcholine- A neurotransmitter, introduction into the human body system increases histamines actions on the body

5-HT (serotonin)- Monoamine neurotransmitter that is thought to cause happy, calm feelings in many people, in stinging nettles it works in conjunction with acetylcholine to increase the effects of the histamines on the body

Moroidin- A neurotoxin common in plants, causes a painful stinging sensation, the cause for the bumps on the skin and for any pain felt

Leukotrines- Fatty signaling molecules, cause inflammation in allergic reactions, regulate the immune response

Symptoms of Contact

                Symptoms will generally be narrow in scope and visible symptoms could include reddening of the area of contact and bumps on the skin similar to those caused by eczema. Symptoms that can be felt include itching of the area and in some cases the area could be tender and painful.

Treatment for the Stings

                Anti-itch creams containing antihistamines or hydrocortisone may help with the symptoms from the nettles, calamine lotion a common remedy for poison ivy and similar plants, could also be very beneficial. An over the counter allergy medication containing antihistamines or histamine blockers could also have the same effect as the creams. A way to relieve the itching when in the great out of doors is the application of mud, when applied to the skin it provides a soothing sensation and relieves the itching.