Beware of spurge poisoning

Working with plants can be hazardous to your health if you are unaware of their hazard and not careful how you handle them. A recent caller reported euphorbia poisoning in his eyes that he was unable to find treatment for. The Euphorbiaceae or spurge family has more than 2,000 species, including ornamental plants such as donkeytail, poinsettia, crown of thorns and mole plant. The family also contains many weeds such as the noxious weed leafy spurge.

All spurges contain a milky sap that is irritating on contact or toxic if ingested. The degree of irritation or toxicity varies depending on species, according to the "Sunset Western Garden Book." If the sap gets on hands when weeding, planting or working with these plants and then is relayed to sensitive areas such as eyes, lips, tongue, inside of elbows and wrists or the groin area, severe irritation and possibly poisoning can result.

Some people have mistakenly eaten the seeds of caper spurge thinking they were true capers. Symptoms of poisoning can be intense burning of the mouth, throat and stomach; salivation, vomiting, convulsions, constriction of the pupils, fluid buildup in the lungs; and, in extreme cases coma and death. Spurges often cause rashes and blisters. Eye irritation develops when the sap comes in contact with the eyes.

Treatment for ingestion is to induce vomiting or have the stomach pumped. Maintain fluids and electrolyte balance in cases of severe vomiting. For irritated eyes, flush with a gentle stream of tepid water for 15 minutes. For irritated skin, wash thoroughly with soap and water, from "Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms of North America," by Turner and Szczawinski.

If you have to work with spurges, be sure to wear gloves, long sleeves, long pants, socks and close-toed shoes to reduce your risk of skin exposure. Do not put things in your mouth as you are working. Don't rub your eyes; touch your face or any exposed portion of your body. Wash your hands before going to the bathroom. I knew a man who ended up in the hospital because he didn't wash his hands before going to the bathroom. Change your clothes and wash them as soon as you are finished.

JoAnne Skelly is the Carson City/Storey County Extension educator for University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.


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