Nov 26, 2001: What is the toxicity of common holiday plants?

I thought you would be interested in potential "Christmas Toxins".  Kim Barker Pharm D., assistant manager of the poison center, provides some insights on this topic:

Christmas trees such as cedar, fir, and other popular evergreens are non-toxic.  All may cause dermal irritation and may cause mechanical injury if ingested. 

Other common plants found in the home during Christmas season include: Poinsettia, Holly, Mistletoe, and the Christmas Cactus.

Poinsettia is not considered a poisonous plant despite the common belief it is toxic.  Children ingesting Poinsettia leaves would not be expected to have any symptoms.  Playing with the leaves or rubbing the eyes after handling the plant may lead to local irritation.  Case reports of GI upset from Poinsettia ingestion generally involve animal cases or very large ingestions. 

The Christmas Cactus is non-poisonous.  The berries of American holly are considered low toxicity.  Ingestion of <5 berries should not produce any symptoms.  Ingestion of >5 berries may produce GI upset or mild drowsiness.  Mistletoe is a parasitic plant and there are many varieties.  Certain varieties contain substances that may cause cardiotoxicity and seizures.  The most common type distributed for re-sale in the United States is the phoradendron species, which causes cardiotoxicity and gastroenteritis.  The MTPC recommends anyone wishing to use fresh mistletoe as a decoration in the home wrap it in a fine netting before hanging.  This is to prevent leaves and berries from dropping to the ground and being ingested by young children.  Ingestion of >3 berries or >2 leaves is considered potentially toxic.


Josephine Darwin, Development Director, also has some insights on the national toll-free 800 number:

There now is a national toll--free hotline number for poison emergency calls.  A caller may dial 1-800-222-1222 from anywhere in the U.S. and the call will be routed to the closest poison control center.  Nationwide advertising promoting this number will begin in January 2002.

MTPC has brochures, phone stickers, and refrigerator magnets with this new hotline number.  Please call Patrick at (615) 936-0760 if you would like us to send you some for your patients.  The literature is free of charge; however, there will be a charge for postage.

As always, if there are any questions, call the MTPC.

I am interested in any questions that you would like answered in "Question of the Week". Please e-mail me with any suggestions.

Donna Seger