A stinging nettle is a type of herbaceous plant, which though first originated in Europe, now grows throughout most of the world. There are actually several related stinging nettle species that are often named by where they are found, like U. californica, and U. afghanica. The plant is perennial, grows to about three to six feet (.91- 1.82 m), with leaves about one to five inches (2.54-12.7 cm) long. Plant height reaches its maximum in summer, and begins to die back almost to the ground during late fall and early winter months. Nettle does produce a sting because of bristly hairs that cover both the stems and leaves.
Though not similar in look to poison oak or poison ivy, skin exposure to nettle can cause a similarly painful and itchy skin rash. A careful approach to stinging needle, and stroking the plant in the direction of its small spiny hairs tend not to result in an adverse reaction. The sting associated with the stinging nettle contains three chemicals: histamine, acetylcholine, and serotonin.
Serotonin and acetylcholine combine to make histamine stronger, creating an allergic reaction in most people who come in contact with mature stinging nettle leaves. The sting can be counteracted with a number of different remedies, which include urinating on the affected area, icing it, putting mud on a sting right after it occurs, or simply washing exposure areas soon after an encounter with the plant. Since the nettle provokes a histamine response, it may also relieve pain and itching if you take an antihistamine like Benadryl® (diphenhydramine).
If you can get past the leaves of the nettle, and handle them appropriately with safety gloves, stinging nettle makes an excellent addition to your herbal cabinet or as a cooked green. Fortunately, crushing, dicing or cooking the plant destroys its sting, and tender young leaves can be quite tasty. Many cooks like to add nettle to soups and stews.
A number of medicinal uses have been recorded for nettle. One creative use was to sting people to “cure” arthritic reactions and rheumatism. This can be metaphorically similar to hitting your head in order to cure a stomachache. The sting and rash might provide a temporary distraction from aching joints, but wasn’t likely to cure them. Other early records on nettle show it was used to treat anemia, eczema, and gout.
Today, the plant may be medicinally used to treat conditions affecting the urinary tract, when taken internally. Taken internally, stinging nettle may actually provide mild pain relief to conditions like arthritis. Few clinical studies exist that “prove” the plant’s efficacy for any condition. Yet, if your knee aches, or your shoulder bothers you, a tea made of stinging nettle or a homeopathic cream is not likely to prove harmful, though checking with a doctor about possible drug or medical condition interactions is always good sense.