Saturday, June 8, 2013

A Cautionary Tale

I knew it was bound to happen sooner or later. I've tried, of course, to be conscientious about hand-washing and so forth, but as many Euphorbias as I have, and as long as I've had them, I was going to get Euphorbia sap in the eye eventually. So here's my report about that.

What happened: On Wednesday night, our weather forecast predicted a low of 58F/14C, which was probably warm enough that I didn't need to do anything -- the plants are all either right next to the house or right next to the garage, they're packed fairly close together, and most are sitting on or near a good-sized slab of concrete. So they're in a relatively warm microclimate to begin with, warm enough that 58F/14C shouldn't be that big of a deal.

But I decided to move the ones that were easiest to move anyway, because an extra layer of protection couldn't hurt. So I intended to wheel the sets of plants that are on carts into the garage. (A couple big plants also had to be moved before I could move the ones on carts, but that's not really relevant to the story.)

One of the carts had a Euphorbia lactea next to a Euphorbia tirucalli 'Firesticks.' I'd been keeping them outside because I've been stupidly hoping that being outside would do something to clear up their fungus problem -- which is still going on, and has been going on for at least a year now.

Back row, L-R: Euphorbia milii, Pachypodium lamerei, Pilosocereus pachycladus. Front row: Euphorbia tirucalli 'Firesticks,' Euphorbia lactea, Euphorbia milii.

I'm not sure what's going on with the E. lactea: it's gotten wobbly in the pot. Kept falling over into the E. tirucalli, as I rolled the cart over the rough surface of the concrete. So I kept picking it up again. I noticed that the lactea thorns were stabbing the tirucalli stems here and there, but this isn't the first time that's happened, and I didn't think it was terribly significant. I tried to keep my hands out of the little pinpricks of sap, and pressed forward, because it was already 8:30 PM and I had other stuff I was hoping to get to before bed.

Got everything in the garage, rolled the door down, turned out the light, went in the house, and sat down at the computer to do stuff. Got about half an hour into that when I absent-mindedly rubbed my left eye.

What it was like: Initially, it just felt like there was something in my eye; it was irritating, but not unusually so. So I rubbed harder, to get whatever it was out of my eye. As you do. And that didn't make things any better, so I got up and went to the bathroom to rinse it out in the sink. And that's roughly the point when I realized that this was no ordinary foreign-object-in-the-eye situation.

For one thing, it felt hot. And it was much more irritated, much faster, than if I'd just gotten a piece of dirt in my eye. I could still see through the eye fine. I found the husband and asked him to look at the eye in question and tell me if he could see anything in there; he couldn't. And that's about the point when I thought of the Euphorbia tirucalli I'd just moved, and put things together.

(So how was the pain? Once when I was about 19, I angrily opened a heavy wooden door, while barefoot, so it swung directly into my big toe, not only stubbing it but also ripping off the toenail. It hurt about that much: bad enough that it took some concentration to think about anything else, but not so bad that I completely lost control of my faculties. This, remember, is from what was probably a single pinprick of dried sap, though. Having experienced that much, I can totally believe that getting a squirt of sap directly to the eye would be completely incapacitating, and probably would involve a good bit of writhing on the floor and/or incoherent screaming.)

So. What you're supposed to do for Euphorbia tirucalli sap is, you're supposed to run cold, clean water on the affected eye(s) for 15 minutes, seek medical attention, and then (optionally) run water on the affected eye(s) for another 15 minutes. I didn't do that.

Why didn't you do that? I didn't do that because, although it felt considerably better with the water on it, and almost immediately so, even, I was having a difficult time keeping my eye open while running water on it, because . . . I don't know. I may have an overactive blink reflex, or something. It should also be noted that what my right eye was doing while this was going on was, it was getting to look at the inside of the kitchen sink. Which is not that interesting, so it's not like the time was passing quickly or anything either.

So what wound up happening was, I'd run the water for like 30-60 seconds, feel better, get bored, and start getting annoyed at trying to keep my eye open when every instinct was telling me to close it. So then I'd get up, try to locate the husband, discuss the situation with him, and then eventually run off to rinse the eye again.

After hearing that keeping the eye open with the water on it was a problem, the husband proposed that maybe it would work better for me to lie down somewhere, and have him holding the water, that maybe it would be easier to relax that way. So at one point, he'd constructed this whole thing where a couple of chairs were supporting a piece of plywood that stretched into our upstairs shower, tilted slightly downward so the water wouldn't run all over into the bathroom. When tried, that turned out to be considerably worse (cold water all over my back and scalp, a gazillion little jets of water spraying all over my face -- generally much, much closer to waterboarding than I felt comfortable with), so we abandoned that and I went back to the kitchen sink again.

Why didn't you just seek medical attention? Well, we did consider it. Since it was 9 PM or later through this whole ordeal, though, that would have meant going to the emergency room in Iowa City, which is a significant amount of time to spend in the car without any water to run over the eye, plus time spent parking, waiting in the waiting room to see a doctor, explaining the situation, and etc. At this point, I was having to go back to the sink every 3-5 minutes, so that didn't seem workable, plus the last time I went to the emergency room, it was also for something eye-related, and I didn't want the U of I Hospital people to be thinking that I was some kind of eye hypochondriac.

More seriously, though -- there was really no indication that the hospital would have been able to do anything much for me that I couldn't do for myself at home. I wasn't in unbearable pain, I was still more or less able to think, and there's not actually a cure for E. tirucalli sap in the eye anyway, as far as I could find on-line: basically you just flush it with water in the hopes that the sap will wash out (and because keeping the eye cool dulls the pain), and wait to see how bad it's going to be. And we had running water here already. So.

Resolution: At about 9:30 or 10 PM, I took an ibuprofen, because why not, and some benadryl (diphenhydramine), because somebody on-line had said that antihistamines were sometimes helpful. By about 10:30 PM, things had improved to the point where I was able to lie on the couch and watch TV ("It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia") for a while without pain. Don't know if the drugs and the feeling better were related or not, but I suppose it doesn't matter.

Wound up going to bed at about 1 AM, and slept in until 11 AM. I don't know if the sleeping in is related or not either, but that's almost unheard of for me: I rarely sleep in later than 9:30 AM.

It's possible that my left eye is a little more prone to watering since this, but it's also possible that I'm just paying more attention to it. No lingering effects that are at all life-disrupting, anyway -- no pain, no problems seeing, no scarring.

What next? Damned if I know. I've had at least one E. tirucalli at all times since 2001, and this is the first time anything like this has happened. If I don't have to worry about it happening again until 2025, that's not so terrible.

On the other hand, the whole Euphorbia genus has made itself awfully annoying over the last year or so, with the ineradicable fungus problem, and there have been several occasions when I've been very tempted to just throw out all the affected plants1 and start over. Or maybe not start over, even, since I don't know how to rid the house of the fungus. Also, this was likely just a tiny pinprick of sap. Next time it might not be.

A new thing they've come up with to annoy me: this branch just up and turned brown and died after it spent some time outside. Dunno why. But Euphorbia pseudocactus is on my list too.

Maybe I'm just done with Euphorbias. I'm certainly going to be thinking about it pretty seriously.


1 Euphorbia tirucalli, E. tirucalli 'Firesticks,' E. drupifera (deceased), E. milii, E. milii 'Candyland' (deceased), E. milii large hybrid, Pedilanthus tithymaloides, P. 'Jurassic Park 2,' P. 'Silver Star,' Synadenium grantii, S. grantii var. rubrum, E. bougheyi variegata, E. lactea, E. trigona, E. trigona 'Red,' and E. pseudocactus.
All of these are officially Euphorbias at the moment, even if I've written their names as Pedilanthus or Synadenium.


Liza said...

Oh dear! That's not good.

I've managed to avoid sap in the eyes, but I've ruined more than one pair of jeans with sap that would not come out.

I can't even imagine how your poor eye must've felt!

Paul said...

Lesson to be learned -- Complacency is the enemy. Doesn't matter whether it is a matter of working with/around a plant/animal which can potentially cause harm (even dogs seriously injure, and in some cases kill, a surprising number of people in the US each year), or using a sharp bladed instrument, or operating potentially dangerous machinery. Vigilance and taking proper sensible precautions is always wisest.

I have heard that juice from the leaves of Aeonium lindleyii can have a significant ameliorating effect on the effects of E. tirucalli.

Evangeline Tankful said...

I thought that was bloody funny. I hope you are also placing your posts in the humour category?

Julie said...

Be done with them, gosh darn it!!!

I have a E. lactea left and I am so glad you told your story, because one tends to forget how awful this sap can be! You remember Aiyana from Water When Dry? Her husband had to go to ER and was in bad shape for several days due to a sap accident as I remember. I am so glad you are OK. I'm sorry for your accident. It is a good reminder to me tho and I am so glad you told us!!!

Speaking of giving something up, I am giving up cactus all together (anything with spines is my new resolution)!
xoxo- Julie

Bracey said...

I was pulling gopher spurge (euphorbia) and got a drop into my right eye. Instant pain and burning and fear. Stood in the shower for 10 minutes which did not help much at all. Went to urgent care doctor who anesthetized my eye and put some salve in it to reduce swelling and irrigation caused. Next day I felt much better. Took a few days for redness to go away. I am now very careful with any and all euphorbias. Same problem with hot chiles but that is solved easily by smearing a blob of plain yogurt in the eye. Drinking milk works for the throat. So does beer. :-)

Anonymous said...


Texas Ampm

Diane C said...

I get into enough trouble without adding those to my list. That will make me want to be wearing my garden gloves all the time!

Anonymous said...

hello...i am a very infrequent visitor to your blog, but i always love what i find. you are both a great writer and a great plant tender. :)

Claude said...

You know, there are times when it seems that there are shrubberies lurking outside our doors just waiting foe the chance to attack unwary suburbanites. But seriously, don't handle those things without gloves. and maybe safety glasses.

Liza said...

Re: Paul's comment: "I have heard that juice from the leaves of Aeonium lindleyii can have a significant ameliorating effect on the effects of E. tirucalli."

Say what? How would anyone know that, and why? That's so odd.

James Stapley said...

I seem to vaguely recall reading that during the Bad Old Colonial Days the local Boer farmers would simply shoot at Euphorbia thickets that British troops took to hiding under when under fire. They'd eventually leave screaming and covered in Euphorbia sap.

If you have such unpleasant plants around, it may well be worth getting an eye-wash bottle/cup, which is often a lot easier to wield than a kitchen sink, and as a bonus, also tends to work in the sink on the way to an ER.

Anonymous said...

Hi Everybody-
This is my first comment on PATSP, but reading Mr. S's tale reminding us all of how horrible Euphorbia sap can be, prompted me to do some research. I had also heard what Paul commented- that Aeonium lindleyii could be used to help the symptoms. But before commenting, I wanted some
expert advice... a good friend is a horticulturalist here in San Diego and specializes in cactus and succulents. He confirmed the use of A. lindleyii and has used it himself. Apparently you can just squeeze some of the juice into the affected eye.
For the dermatitis of contacting the sap with skin, there's another plant I never heard of before-
Senecio anteuphorbium, which one could guess by the species name, was an old African treatment for Euphorbia. My friend has no direct experience with this however.
So my question is... do other readers have more info to share? Personal experience with either
As an aside- Mr. S, expect an email with a offer of plants--- NOT Euphorbs...LOL.
Bill in San Diego

Paul said...

Anonymous Liza said...
Re: Paul's comment: "I have heard that juice from the leaves of Aeonium lindleyii can have a significant ameliorating effect on the effects of E. tirucalli."

Say what? How would anyone know that, and why? That's so odd

Odd? Not really, Liza. Keep in mind that Euphorbia and other "well armed" plants often have quite a wide distribution. Before the advent of modern medicine, mankind had to rely upon the materials on hand to treat injuries. No doubt someone somewhere along the line had a bad encounter with a Euphorbia and after trying remedy after remedy finally tried A. lindleyii juice -- and indubitably was thrilled to pieces to find something that worked.