Dieffenbachia – The Case of the Killer Plant Dissected

Facebook is informative and entertaining but it can also be a source of incorrect information. I remember a time that I kept seeing a story about how the wrestler John Cena died in a practice of one of his  acts with The Rock only to find out that it was a complete hoax. How unfortunate that Facebook can be used as a tool to spread false information, but that ironically is what technology can do. It can reach out to millions of people by simply typing and hitting the enter key – whether any means of validating the data.  I’ve seen stories of how certain  socialites got thrown out of someone else’s building; how toddlers are being being  lured and kidnapped in big shopping  malls; how geckos are supposed to cure cancer  and AIDS and all sorts of stories.

So when I came across a post about a common house plant alleged  to be so poisonous that “it can kill a kid in less than a minute and an adult in 15 minutes” with a picture of  a plant that I am so familiar with, my first reaction is  that it was a hoax. And, according to the message, simply touching the plant and then rubbing your eyes can cause partial or permanent blindness. a

I spent twenty year in a household where a similar plant is available, and though I’m not someone who has a “green thumb’, I’ve done my fair share of gardening, though my tasks had been limited to watering, trimming and weeding the plants.

The plant in the photograph is a dieffenbachia, a species commonly used as a potted house plant because of its attractive appearance, its suitability for indoor, low light intensity growing environments, and its ease of cultivation. It is a rapid grower and makes an excellent house plant. Dieffenbachia is also known as “Dumb Cane” because of the toxic effect it can have on the mouth and tongue if chewed. All parts of this plants contain raphides – crystalline, needle-like structures which are ejected when its cell walls are damaged.

Dieffenbachia is indeed poisonous to humans and animals, specially if parts of the plant are ingested.

The results of dieffenbachia poisoning are normally not life threatening and victims usually make a full recovery. Ingestion of the plant will cause stinging and burning to the mouth and throat with symptoms persisting for up to two weeks (speech can become disabled) though claims has that it can kill a child in a minutes and an adult for 15 minutes, research indicates that actual fatalities in humans are extremely rare.

Ingestion of the plant may potentially cause swelling severe enough to block the victim’s airways and death is a possible result, however, there are no credible medical reports that back up the suggestion in the proliferating warnings and emails that death is a common and is very rapid result of dieffenbachia poisoning. An article regarding plant poisoning published on the Emedicine website noted that:

“Patients with history of oral exposure (chewing and/or swallowing) have been reported to have severe swelling, drooling, dysphagia, and respiratory compromise, but this is not common. In a large retrospective study of 188 patients with plant oxalate exposure, all cases were determined to be minor and all resolved with minor or no treatment. Patients can also experience dermal and ocular exposure, resulting in contact dermatitis or keratoconjunctivitis. Symptoms that result from these routes of exposure also appear to resolve with supportive care. The serious complication of aortoesophageal fistula following ingestion of a dieffenbachia leaf in a girl aged 12.5 years has been described in a single 2005 case report. The girl recovered following surgical intervention.

The claim that rubbing your eyes after touching the plant can cause permanent blindness seems to be an exaggeration. Exposure of the eye to the plant can be particularly painful and the same article in the Ezine notes that “Ocular exposure may result in eye pain, redness, and lid swelling”, but makes no mention of permanent blindness. Other medical articles describe dieffenbachia induced corneal injury but still no mention of permanent blindness.

The warning emails and messages, though, was successful in pointing out that not all household cultivated plants are safe. Most of the warnings had the picture of the plant, which was helpful in identifying it just by seeing, without having to know that exact name.

If you have such plants at home, handle them with care and use protective gloves when trimming or making cuttings for propagation. Small children and pets should be kept away from dieffenbachia plants. In case of unfortunate and accidental exposure, wipe out the affected part with a cold, wet cloth.  If ingested, give milk to drink. Call the authorities for further guidance and ambulatory/medical services if necessary.



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