The Q&A Archives: Are Poinsettias Poisonous

Question: Are poinsettias poisonous? And if so, what is the effect?

Answer: Karen,

Poinsettias have long been a colorful holiday tradition, but their cheerful image has been sullied somewhat by fears that children or others may be at risk if they accidentally eat parts of the plant. The myth may have its roots in Hawaii in 1919 when an Army officer's 2-year old child died after allegedly eating a poinsettia leaf. Though the story was later determined to be hearsay, nearly 66% of those participating in a 1995 Society of American Florists poll still believed poinsettias to be toxic if eaten.

Abundant evidence exists to debunk the myth, however. Researchers at the Ohio State University, tested the effects of ingesting unusually high doses of the leaves, stems, and sap from the poinsettias and concluded that rats, "when given extraordinarily high doses of various portions of the poinsettia, show no mortality, no symptoms of toxicity nor any changes in dietary intake or general behavior pattern." Still, the myth persists among many people. Sometimes myths are that way.

According to POISINDEX(R), the information resource used by the majority of U.S. poison control centers, a 50-pound child would have to eat more than 1.25 pounds of poinsettia bracts (500 to 600 leaves) to exceed the experimental doses that found no toxicity.

In other words, poinsettias are not poisonous. The Centers for Disease Control notes that although many cases of poinsettia ingestion continue to be reported to poison control centers each year, "only occasional abdominal pain and nausea have been documented." Also, the sap of the plant may cause a mild skin irritation, but that most people are not sensitive to it. These plants are best classified as 'possibly toxic,' according to the Texas Agricultural Extension Service, and not 'poisonous.'

The colorful plants are not without their risks, however, particularly to pets. The Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine considers them to have low toxicity that can irritate the skin, mouth, eyes and stomach of house pets. Pets who nibble on poinsettias, particularly the leaves and stems may exhibit irritation, discomfort, and rash around the mouth and eyes. Nausea and vomiting may occur if sufficient quantities are consumed. Therefore it may be a good idea to keep poinsettias away from curious pets, like cats.

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