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Poisonous Plants Abound in House, Yard

Reactions Vary from Skin Rash to Organ Damage; Both Humans and Pets Can Be Affected


I will never forget the day my son sampled a houseplant leaf. Although I didn't see him insert the pothos into his mouth, I did hear his screams. Alarmed, I called the poison control center and discovered why one little leaf can create such a scare.

Pothos and many other common houseplants have oxalate crystals in their juice or sap. These microscopic crystals resemble tiny needles or splinters of glass. When plant leaves are chewed, the crystals are released and there is mouth pain. Fortunately, young children have few teeth and don't release as many oxalate crystals when chewing as older children and animals, so the pain may only last a couple of hours.

It turns out that my call is a common one.

Anthony Manoguerra, a pharmacist who is director of the San Diego division of the California Poison Control System, which serves Orange County, said 80% of the 2,500 calls a year received about potentially poisonous plants involve those with oxalate crystals.

"These plants cause irritation of the mucous membranes; pain and/or swelling of the mouth, lips and tongue; and skin rashes, with symptoms lasting about a day," he said. "Eating these plants usually isn't life-threatening, unless there is enough swelling to obstruct breathing."

Plants that fall into the oxalate category include dieffenbachia, philodendron, pothos, elephant's ear (Alocasia), caladium species, peace lily (Spathiphyllum), Swiss cheese plant (Monstera deliciosa) and arrowhead vine (Syngonium podophyllum).

While many indoor plants aren't potentially deadly if ingested, a surprising number of outdoor plants can produce life-threatening reactions when their leaves, flowers or fruit are eaten.

Many of these toxic plants can damage the heart and other major organs, and their ingestion can be fatal. There are other categories of plants that cause rashes when plant sap comes in contact with skin. And many other types of plants also cause vomiting and diarrhea when eaten.

Whether dehydration will occur depends on the type of plant and the amount ingested. Manoguerra said a child became dehydrated after eating castor beans. "There was potential for liver damage, and the child had to be hospitalized," he said.

Other symptoms that may be seen after ingesting a poisonous plant include nausea, headache, lethargy and a drop in heart rate, usually occurring within six to 12 hours. What occurs depends on the quantity and type of plant ingested.

If you suspect that a child has eaten a potentially poisonous plant, call the Poison Control System immediately at (800) 876-4766.

"Most children who have taken a small bite out of a harmful plant will be fine, but the poison control center should be the judge of that," Manoguerra said. "Unlike dogs and cats, children will rarely eat large amounts of a toxic plant because most have a very unpleasant taste.

"Oleander is an example. Although it is poisonous, it's so bitter that most kids stop eating it once they start and don't ingest enough to cause much harm."

When you call the poison center, describe exactly what happened, including when the child ate the plant, how much and which parts. If you don't know the name of the plant, send someone to the nursery with a plant sample for identification while you call, or download photos of various highly toxic plants off the Poison Control System's and the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center's Web sites (see addresses at end of story).

Treatment for a plant poisoning varies, depending on the plant ingested and the amount. If the plant eaten is an oxalate, wipe out the mouth and give the child something cool to drink to alleviate the discomfort. Popsicles work well to reduce swelling and relieve irritation.

To protect children and pets from plant poisoning, your best line of defense is to remove poisonous plants from your landscape or at least fence them out of reach.

Manoguerra suggests making a map of your yard and identifying all of the plants. When you run across a plant you can't identify, take a snapshot or a cutting to a nursery that has certified nursery personnel and ask for assistance.

Before adding any new plants to your yard, research them to make sure they aren't toxic.

Because certain mushrooms are highly toxic, pull up any mushrooms and throw them away immediately.

And, because accidents often happen away from home, inspect any house you are visiting for poisonous plants.

Plant Poisoning in Animals

Poisonous plants are risky to pets too, as are certain plants that are nontoxic to humans such as onion, garlic, avocado, aloe vera and apple (seeds).

"People are often surprised that so many plants are toxic to pets," said Jill Richardson, a veterinary poison information specialist with the Illinois-based ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center.

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