Summer is here and plants are everywhere! They offer such beauty, but some can be harmful. As we spend more time outdoors, we increase our risk of coming into contact with poisonous plants.
Young children often put harmful plants or berries in their mouths and adults may pick harmful plants and berries to eat, thinking they are safe.
Poisonous plants can be harmful if you touch them, eat them, or burn them. The entire plant could be poisonous or just parts could be harmful. For example, rhubarb stalk can be eaten, but the leaves are poisonous.
Some potentially poisonous plants that you may find while in your yard or when hiking the Vermont trails this summer include poison ivy and poison sumac. They tend to be the most common offenders. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the most common problems with these poisonous plants are the result of skin contact with the sap oil found in them. They have oil on their leaves called urushiol, which can cause an itchy red rash. This oil can remain active for up to five years. Did you know that you can get poison ivy from petting your dog after he had a romp in the woods where there was poison ivy?
Other commonly found plants that are poisonous include azalea, daffodil, daphne, iris, and rhododendron. Even common milkweed can be harmful as well as the beautiful berries from yew bushes and lily-of-the-valley. Beware of the pits from peaches and many other fruits. They can be poisonous if eaten. Watch your pets as well. Garlic and onions can be harmful to pets, so be careful where you plant these to protect your furry friends.
Many plants however are not harmful if you only eat a small amount, but some can be very dangerous with just one bite. Symptoms may vary depending on whether you ate them, got them on your skin, or inhaled them. Some symptoms include:
- Red rash within a few days of contact
- Swelling and itching
- Stomach upset
- Change in heart rate
- Difficulty breathing
Here are some prevention tips to keep you safe:
- Closely watch your children and teach them to ask before touching or eating plants, berries or mushrooms.
- Identify your plants. You can take a piece to a local greenhouse, garden center, nursery or agricultural extension office.
- Do not eat plants, berries or mushrooms that you find outside unless you are sure you know what they are.
- Wear long sleeves, long pants or boots when walking in areas with poison ivy and other poisonous plants.
- Wash clothes that may have touched a poisonous plant in hot water with detergent.
- Clean gardening tools or camping equipment that may have come in contact with a poisonous plant like poison ivy, clean them with rubbing alcohol (isopropanol or isopropyl alcohol) or soap and water. Wear disposable gloves.
- Do not burn plants that may be poison ivy or poison sumac.
- Inhaling smoke can cause severe allergic respiratory problems
If someone has eaten a plant that might be harmful:
- Take all pieces of the plant out of their mouth.
- Give a few sips of water or milk.
- Call the poison center at 1-800-222-1222
If someone has touched a plant that might be harmful:
- Wash their skin with a lot of soap and water within 10 to 15 minutes after exposure.
- Remove and wash contaminated clothes.
- Call the poison center at 1-800-222-1222.
- Talk with your pharmacist or doctor about which over-the-counter products might work best for your medical condition. Products such as hydrocortisone cream, calamine lotion, or an antihistamine (e.g., Benadryl) may help relieve your rash or itchy skin.
If someone has burned a plant that might be harmful:
- Get to fresh air and call the poison center at 1-800-222-1222.
- Call 911 or go to a hospital emergency room if they have a severe allergic reaction, such as swelling or difficulty breathing.
If you think someone has eaten, touched or burned a plant that might be harmful and they are having any of the above symptoms, call the Northern New England Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222 or visit their website at www.nnepc.org to chat with a poison specialist. Seek medical help right away if symptoms are severe such as difficulty breathing.
Have fun playing in the park, hiking the mountains and picnicking in your yard, but be careful. These poisonings can be prevented. To learn more about specific plants visit the Northern New England Poison Center at www.nnepc.org or call 1-800-222-1222. They are available to answer questions as well as offer treatment advice.
Gayle Finkelstein, MS, is Poison Prevention Educator with the Northern New England Poison Center.