Milkweed – Toxic Sap

Here’s a cautionary story for gardeners who enjoy growing milkweed:

My sister lives in the tidewater area of Virginia. She had a very scary experience this weekend and she thinks other gardeners should be warned so they won’t have to go through what she’s gone through the last few days.

She has written the following detailed report for her local newspaper gardening columnist:

Detailed account of Episode with Tropical Milkweed

On Saturday, September 11, 2004, I cut back from 5 foot height to 3 foot height a 30 foot row of milkweed plants (Asclepias curassavica) in my garden to encourage second bloom. After I cut back each plant I weeded underneath it. Towards the end of the row I noticed my eyes beginning to sting. It was hot and I was sweating so I had been periodically wiping the sweat off my face with the hem of my t-shirt. I must have gotten the sap that was dripping off of the newly cut plants into my eyes somehow in the process of wiping my face. When the stinging got worse I came inside and bathed and washed my eyes out extensively. They were still burning badly so I called my sister who called the Poison Control Center. The person at Poison Control recommended I go to the emergency room.

I went to Riverside Walter Reed emergency room around 1 pm Saturday. The doctor examined my eyes and told the nurse to perform eye irrigation, which she did. The doctor said I had corneal abrasions and released me with prescriptions for Darvocet painkiller and Erythromycin eye ointment and instructions to see my doctor on Monday. I drove myself home but became aware almost immediately that I was having trouble seeing and was still in a lot of pain.

I used the ointment and took the Darvocet and couldn’t sleep all night because of the pain. By the next morning, I was almost completely blind. I called the hospital who contacted my opthamalogist. The opthamalogist told me to come into his office first thing the next morning and to discontinue the Erythromycin ointment until then. He instructed me to use Murine Tears frequently instead.

On Monday morning the opthamalogist examined me in his office and said I still had considerable corneal edema resulting from the corneal abrasions. I asked him how the milkweed could cause abrasions and he said in fact it was chemical burns from the milkweed toxin. He prescribed steroidal eyedrops to reduce the swelling and told me to come back on Friday, September 17. He said to resume administration of the ointment once a day, at bedtime. I asked him whether I would have permanent damage and he said he thought not. I asked him if he had heard of milkweed causing problems. He said no, that he had seen eye injuries caused by botanicals, but not milkweed.

By Monday evening, after using the steroidal drops three times, I was in a lot less pain and was able to see much better. As of now, Tuesday afternoon, my vision is better but far from perfect. I’m still in some pain. I know I won’t ever grow the milkweed again even though I certainly enjoyed its beauty and the way it attracted butterflies and hummingbirds. Since I think this kind of milkweed has only been available locally for about the last five years and I know that butterfly gardening is gaining in popularity, I think people need to be aware of the potential dangers.

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