Cure my sister's hogweed exposure symptoms!
July 5, 2011 9:58 PM   Subscribe

A cure for giant hogweed burns?

My sister has, we suspect, been exposed to Giant Hogweed. We found the plants in the backyard, and she is exhibiting photosensitivity, linear patterned burns and blistering on her hands and eye irritation. She has seen a number of doctors and none of the standard treatments (first antibiotics, then steroids) have worked.

The internet says she may suffer this way for up to six years before the extreme photosensitivity subsides. Google does not offer up any clear cut treatment options.

Has anyone come into contact with this awful plant? If so, what helped alleviate your suffering besides the obvious solution of staying out of the sun?
posted by slateyness to Health & Fitness (7 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I know nothing about treatment for Giant Hogweed burns, but your sister has my complete sympathy--this stuff is HORRIBLE!

I can't believe it was imported into England and the States as an ornamental plant. Just what everyone needs in their garden--an ugly plant that can cause severe burns and blindness--or even put you in the hospital-- just by simply touching it. Apparently some people suffer from photosensitivity for life.

After googling, I ran across this abstract:

Full thickness burn caused by exposure to giant hogweed: delayed presentation, histological features and surgical management.
Chan JC, Sullivan PJ, O'Sullivan MJ, Eadie PA.

Department of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, Our Lady's Children's Hospital, Crumlin, Dublin 12, Ireland.

We report the case of a 10-year-old boy with a full thickness chemical burn on his right pretibial area due to phytophotodermatitis (PPD) following contact with giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum). Although cutaneous burns due to plants are a well-established cause of chemical burn, previous reports described partial thickness burns that healed with conservative measures. This patient presented to our unit two weeks after the initial injury with an established full thickness burn. Debridement and split thickness skin grafting was required. We presented the histological features of the debrided skin specimen and discussed potential factors leading to this unexpected full thickness injury.

posted by BlueHorse at 10:47 PM on July 5, 2011

This is indeed a horrible, exotic and invasive plant, with ridiculously severe impacts on the unlucky. My previous reading on this species wasn't particularly helpful with treatments -- basically, there doesn't seem to be a quick and effective treatment that reverses all the hogweed sap''s effects. No doubt you've done your own Googling and found medical sites with some discussion.

Please do tell any children you may parent, raise or otherwise care for this basic life rule: Don't touch any strange plants. Giant hogweed isn't the only species that can cause photo-toxic effects (but it's probably the worst) -- and there are numerous other plants that can leave rashes, allergic reactions, etc. Don't know? Don't touch!

Also - please call your county or local weed department. Most places have one. There are also federal pest-plant agents in every state. They need to be eradicating this plant, so other people don't suffer as your sister has.
posted by slab_lizard at 11:06 PM on July 5, 2011

My sympathies as well. IANAD, so my first recommendation is keep trying more dermatologists and people who research this plant.

If that really goes nowhere in the end, but the blisters subside, and she needs some hope for the long-term photosensitivity, then I guess 10th grade biology says water will pass out of your hands if you soak them in salt water. Googling the possibility, I see some scammy goofball claims about salt baths removing naturally arising toxins, but in this case, I reckon there actually are little phototoxic molecules that passed through the skin still hanging around, and if you give them a bunch of chances to flow the other direction, perhaps some can get out sooner. Ask one of those dermatologists before trying it, because it's probably still a goofball idea.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 11:16 PM on July 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

The toxin binds to the DNA. There's really no effective treatment. She may well have to wear gloves and sunglasses for years to mitigate her symptoms and hope for the best.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 11:55 PM on July 5, 2011

Best answer: I am not your anything. I am not a physician or direct care provider. I am not a botanist.

The fancy name is phytophotodermatitis, contact dermatitis caused by UV exposure following exposure to certain kinds of plants (most notoriously giant hogweed). What happens is that the furocoumarins, the plant chemicals that cause the reaction, ordinarily bind only loosely to DNA, but when they're photoactivated by ultraviolet-A light (UV-A) they bind more permanently, interfering with the cell's ability to function and resulting in cell death. Once enough skin cells die, you get a noticeable injury, specifically a chemical burn. Similarly, you get a regular old sunburn because UV-B is energetic enough to penetrate your skin and damage DNA directly.

There's no mysterious substance here that will make you sensitive for years on end. The cells where the furocoumarins bind die when they're exposed to the light, and the dead cells are sloughed. (Just as your superficial sunburn peels.)

The dermatology books and journal articles I looked at all agreed that the length of time to recover from the immediate dermatitis depended on how much exposure the patient had to giant hogweed and to sunlight, just as the length of time it takes to recover from a typical sunburn depends on how bad it was.

Medically, it's handled just like any other chemical burn - ensure first of all that the burning agent (in this case hogweed sap and oils) is completely removed from the affected area, then treat the burn depending on the extent of injury (superficial, partial-thickness or full-thickness burn).

But if it's just a superficial burn, and of course your sister stays out of the sun and away from hogweed, the acute phase should resolve in 3 to 5 days, and then there'll be a non-painful color change of the skin that could last weeks to months.

What's tricky is that your sister might be re-exposed to the plant (if there are contaminated surfaces or clothes or whatnot) or she might have a problem with skin exposure to other related plants, like wild parsnip, celery, wild carrot, Queen Anne's lace, and so on.

It's a little strange that your sister is having eye irritation - the reaction to giant hogweed is based on contact with the plant secretions, and airborne contact dermatitis makes for pretty dramatic symptoms (gross swelling and blistering of the eyelids). If it's limited to red, itchy eyes, or eyes that are sun-sensitive, I wonder if she's got pollen allergies to something else in the yard, producing some allergic conjunctivitis?

Sorry this is such a book, but I figured if I was going to counter the claims of Dr. Google (who always says your prognosis is tragic) I needed to be specific.
posted by gingerest at 1:07 AM on July 6, 2011 [5 favorites]

Just an anecdote.

4 years ago at a rave in a forest I lay down in a giant hogweed plant (I'm not a native of the country I live in, so didn't know what giant hogweed was). This happened around 10 a.m. I then spent the rest of the day on the beach, in the sun. I remember I only left the beach after sunset. The next day both my arms were covered in blisters, I went to the doctor, was given a painkilling cream and told to stay out of the sun for a week. A week later I was back at work (I work outdoors a lot). And 2 weeks later you couldn't see that I'd ever had any contact with the dreaded plant.

Since then I have spent every European winter travelling around SE Asia for 3-4 months with absolutely noproblems with photosensitivity.

posted by DelusionsofGrandeur at 3:30 AM on July 6, 2011

Response by poster: @ Slab Lizard- "don't know, don't touch" is a great rule. In our case, we think her cat touched and my sister touched the cats. And yes, we are having the plants removed by the state.

@ Gingerest- thank you for the book. Google had been scaring the crap out of us. Until we discovered the hogweed we were perplexed by how she has obtained what looked like radiation burns on her hands. She also has seasonal allergies so the eyes may be a red herring.

She rocks sunglasses and gloves regularly. It is, obviously, an awesome look for the summer.
posted by slateyness at 6:49 AM on July 6, 2011

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