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Know what to do if your child eats a toxic plant

By KATHERINE SNOW SMITH
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 7, 2002

I've always heard that oleander can be deadly if children put it in their mouths, so I guard it like a rattlesnake if my kids are around any.

Now I have a list from the Florida Poison Information Center. Most of the plants I've heard of, including several growing in my yard, are dangerous.

Boxwoods, daffodils, azaleas, ivy and about 20 other plants are considered toxic. You should call the poison center immediately if your child puts any of these in her mouth.

"Deaths certainly don't happen that often, but the highly toxic things are scary and you probably don't want to have them in your yard," said JoAnn Chambers, an educator with the Poison Information Center in Tampa, which serves 21 Florida counties including Pinellas.

If your child does eat a toxic plant, the poison center hotline often will suggest they go to a hospital where they will be observed for signs of heart irregularities or seizures. Some children will drink a charcoal that binds to the poison. A laxative then helps move it out of their body.

Treated quickly, most people recover from plant poisonings. Chambers reported one case, however, in which a man mistook a glory lily bulb for an onion and started feeling terrible soon after eating it in his salad. He went to the hospital quickly but still died because there is no anecdote for glory lily poisoning.

"You don't want to have glory lilies, oleander or rosary beans where your children or pets can get to them," Chambers said. "It takes only one of those (rosary bean) peas to kill a child. They are the hard red and black peas that kids use in crafts sometimes. If a kid swallows one of those and it's cracked, it can destroy internal organs. ... All ivies are bad and can cause internal poisoning."

Ingestion of certain plants can cause swelling and blockage of airwaves. If your child shows immediate trouble breathing after ingesting a plant or flower, call 911 first. Otherwise, call the Poison Information Center.

Besides the toxic plants, more than 20 are considered skin irritants. Contact with elephant's ear or philodendron, for example, may cause itching, a rash or blisters. Though these are not too dangerous, parents should wash their kids with soap and water and still check with the poison center.

"We get tons of calls from these," Chambers said. "The kids are screaming, they are in pain, their mouths are all red and swollen, and they can't eat for a while."

We tell our kids that some plants are poisonous so they should never put them in their mouth. You also should tell them that many berries aren't necessarily safe just because a bird eats them.

Finally, don't assume you're out of the woods if your child is beyond putting everything in his mouth. Kids 5 and older also like to make potions or play restaurant with things growing in the yard.

If you're like me, you probably can't name and identify all the plants in your yard or other places where your kids play. Take some leaves or flowers in a plastic bag to any plant nursery where someone can tell you what each is.

"We do have a lot of poisonous plants here. If people ask me what's poisonous, I can pretty much tell them," said Cliff Bertucci, owner of Gulf Coast Garden Center on Haines Road in St. Petersburg. "If you can't watch your kids nonstop, you would not want to plant (something poisonous) around where they play."

Be sure to inform the plant nursery you have kids or even pets because they don't always think to tell you something is poisonous. And it's not just the little ones you are protecting.

"If you're out maintaining the plants and you don't know what you have and you cut something back, you can get sick from the sap," Bertucci said. Sick means you may get nauseous or break out in welts. Bertucci said there also have been cases when people burned oleander in a campfire or used it to roast marshmallows and the smoke made them nauseous.

Besides removing all known poisonous vegetation, get rid of any type of mushroom in your yard. Also, put all house plants out of reach from small children and pets.

Another caution goes for caterpillars. Many will sting. So unless you can easily recognize a buck, saddleback or spiny-oak slug caterpillar, I would just tell your kids to steer clear. If they are stung, use adhesive tape to pull the hairs out of your child's skin and then rinse the area with soap and water.

The new national number for poison information is 1-800-222-1222. You can call from anywhere in the country and be connected with the poison center closest to you. Call for a detailed list of poisonous and nonpoisonous plants.

* * *

All Children's Hospital is hosting its first Asthma Family Day, 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday at the hospital's education center, 701 Fourth St. S, St. Petersburg. The day will include question-and-answer sessions with doctors and talks on topics such as allergies, understanding asthma and making your own asthma action plan. There will be activities for children ages 4 to teenagers. Call 892-4188 to register.

Toxic plants

African lily

Agapanthus

Azalea

Bird of paradise

Boxwood

Chinaberry

Creeping Charlie

Daffodil

Dianthus

Heavenly bamboo

Holly

Hyacinth

Ivy

Juniper

Lily of the Nile

Lily of the valley

Mistletoe

Morning glory

Oleander

Periwinkle

Pryacantha

Rhododendron

Rosary bean

Chrysanthemum

Spidermum

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