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Eyes of ‘Fire’

September 22, 2010

Beware!

The illustration with this post is dramatic, but it’s nothing compared with the actual pain and discomfort that can come from an encounter with many common euphorbia succulents. Last week I heard about the husband of a colleague who unwittingly contaminated first his hands, then his eyes, with the sap of an African Milk Tree. He’d been absentmindedly picking dead bits off the tree while on the phone and gotten the milky sap on his fingers. Later, after washing his hands, he went to put in his contact lenses, when his eyes suddenly felt like they were on fire — he described the feeling as like having “habanero chile juice” in them! Later, after an hour’s rinsing and the pain had somewhat subsided, he visited an ophthalmologist who said his eyes were inflamed, but that luckily there was no corneal damage. Hearing his story reminded me of a similar experience I’d had while trimming a “pencil tree” euphorbia. I’ve never felt such pain — and panic — as when I mistakenly rubbed my eyes with sap-contaminated hands. I literally could not see for over an hour, and I was in agony! After endlessly rinsing my eyes under running water, the pain finally subsided enough that I didn’t think I was going to be blinded. Sadly, I then put my glasses back on, not realizing that they, too, were tainted, and the whole horrid episode began again… more rinsing and writhing and praying I wouldn’t go blind. How did I not know, and why doesn’t anyone talk about how painful — and even deadly — euphorbias can be if mishandled?

Pretty, poisonous

Above are three common euphorbias I’ve either had, or have, in my garden. And each of them has the potential to cause skin and eye irritation if their milky sap, or ‘latex’, comes in contact with either. The euphorbia lacteas, at left and center, can cause irritation for skin and mucous membranes; on the right, the euphorbia we know as ‘sticks on fire’ is not only common but extremely dangerous, with everything from skin and eye irritation, to blindness and death, attributed to contact with its sap! Because of my unfortunate bout with the pencil tree, I take careful precautions when trimming them; including wearing long sleeves and gloves, and making sure none of the sap drips on me by wrapping cut ends with plastic or newspapers. The internet is full of horror stories of people who’ve suffered pain and complications because of euphorbias. And, because euphorbias are prevalent in so many parts of the world and include so many species (over 2,000!), it’s a good idea for succulent gardeners to educate themselves about possible risks involved with theirs. The link here is a good basic list of many euphorbias and the dangers of handling them; there’s even some interesting cultural and historical information. Keeping ourselves, family members and pets safe in the garden is important; by sharing stories we can help each other out. Feel free to send this post to others, and share your euphorbia stories in comment form here. I would never not use euphorbias in my garden — they’re so primitively beautiful, and so diverse, they’re irresistible. I just approach them with a desire that’s tempered by a little fear now.

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. September 23, 2010 3:02 am

    Yikes! I am so glad your story has a happy (you’re not blind) ending! I’ve gotten the sap on my skin, that’s bad enough…can’t even imagine the pain with it in your eye.

    • reubix1 permalink*
      September 23, 2010 3:04 am

      I was worried for a while, blindness is NOT an option for someone who likes seeing as much a I do!

  2. September 2, 2012 3:47 am

    hello! i also have an experience just now by that cactus. i was moving the cactus (the 3rd pic in your post) plant and then i saw a small amount of sap drop on me. i went to the bathroom and wash it with running water. i didn’t feel any irritation yet. but i somehow feel numb not the numb that totally can’t feel anything. i search in the internet and was nervous of what can happen to me. i put alcohol and wash the area again. i hope nothing worse can happen.

    • reubix1 permalink*
      September 2, 2012 4:09 am

      I hope you’ll be fine … I’m glad you didn’t get the sap into your eyes! I wouldn’t wish that on my worse enemy. Best to you! Reuben

      • Erika Narly Llacsahuache-Lohr permalink
        June 5, 2016 5:29 am

        Gosh, I wish I could have known this before my terrible accident with the fire stick .Unfortunately some of its milk touched my eye ball and in second my right eye was on fire, I screamed, cried and hitted everything that was in from of me for one hour till I got the right medicine in kaiser. what a relief! I must say; The worstest pain ever in my 41 years of life.. I am in kaiser right now waiting for the doctor to check my eye to make sure that there is not damage in my cornea.

      • June 5, 2016 4:10 pm

        So sorry — I know your pain, believe me … I hope your eye’s not damaged and please exercise caution in the future. I use gloves and when I’m trimming a taller euphorb, cover the sap-dripping part with a plastic bag. And I always, always!, never touch your eyes until I’ve washed my hands thoroughly first. Best of luck to you!

  3. Denise permalink
    June 2, 2017 6:46 pm

    I didn’t get any sap directly on me, but the residue was on the gloves and clothes and when I was sweating, I kept wiping my face with the back of my gloved hands and that’s all it took. My eyes and really burning bad and so is my face, nose & mouth. I read that milk was a good emulsifier and it works better than water. I emerged my face in the sink filled up with milk and kept putting my whole face in there and opening my eyes in it and rolling them around. So, be careful, be very careful and don’t touch your face and where long sleeves, gloves and eye protection. I hope I will be OK soon, cuz I’m concerned after reading all these articles about the damage that can be caused.
    .

  4. g Lazz in SoCal permalink
    June 25, 2017 3:43 am

    I recently had a terrible experience with the sticks of fire while trimming them. I am familiar with their poisonous properties and took precautions; I wore gloves I was extremely careful not to touch any of the sap, the trimmings went directly into a trash bin, I immediately washed my hands multiple times and tossed the gloves in the trash along with the trimmings. I washed my hands thoroughly with hot water and soap. About an hour later I was rubbing my eyes, eye glasses were on my face and i deduced that somehow some minuscule residual sap must’ve transferred from my hands to my eyes either by my eyeglasses or the smallest trace of the sap. The resulting three hour trauma was the worst pain I have ever experienced similar to the person who went to Kaiser, I flushed my eyes with cold water for at least 30 minutes – that did nothing, I then stepped into the shower and flushed with cool water for another 30 minutes, I took an antihistamine and I iced my eyes for another hour. The pain was so intense my wife wanted to take me to urgent care or call 911, it was that bad. Even though I had exercised extreme caution in the handling of these plants I still became infected. These plants are beautiful but require extreme caution when trimming them, ideally they should not be trimmed at all. I am thinking of removing them entirely from my property as this is the second time this is happened to me! Please fellow succulent lovers please be very very careful!!

  5. Greg Lazzaro permalink
    October 7, 2017 7:05 pm

    Circling back on this… now that I radically trimmed the STICKS, they have come back with vengence! with the extreme hot summer we have had they have basically bolted. I am NOT TOUCHING THEM, but eventually will remove them, beautiful as they are they are too hazardous to have close to where people may come in contact with them. PLEASE BE CAREFUL OR HAVE A PROFESSIONAL HANDLE THEM!!

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