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Poinsettia Pitfalls for the Allergic Prone!

The poinsettia plant also known as Euphorbia pulcherrima is one species of the diverse Spurge family that is native to Mexico and Central America. The bright red and green leaves make it an especially delightful decoration during the Christmas season.  The common name comes from Joel Poinsett, the first U.S. Minister to Mexico, who introduced the plant into the U.S. in 1825.  There are over 100 cultivated varieties of poinsettia.

Poinsettia History:

  • Aztecs used the plant to produce red dye and as a medication to reduce fever.
  • Association with Christmas:  In 16th century Mexico, a legend tells of a young girl who was too poor to buy a gift to celebrate Jesus’ birthday.  She was inspired by an angel to gather weeds near the road and place them at the church altar. Crimson blossoms emerged from the weeds and became beautiful poinsettias.  Since the 17th century, Franciscan friars in Mexico have included poinsettias in their Christmas celebrations. The star-shaped leaf pattern symbolizes the Star of Bethlehem and the red color represents the blood sacrifice through the crucifixion of Jesus.

Health Risks:

Toxic reactions:

There is a common misconception that poinsettia plants are highly toxic. This fallacy was promulgated by a 1919 urban legend of a 2 year old child dying after consuming a poinsettia leaf in Hawaii.  While the sap and latex of many plants of the spurge family are indeed toxic, the poinsettia’s toxicity is relatively mild.  The sap can be mildly irritating to the skin if touched or to the stomach if ingested.  With a very large ingestion, diarrhea and vomiting may occur.  If sap is accidentally introduced into the eye, temporary blindness may occur.  A study published in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine of 22,793 cases reported to the American Association of Poison Control Centers revealed no fatalities.  The vast majority of poinsettia exposures are accidental involving children resulting in no need for medical treatment.

To read more about holiday plants with toxic misconceptions, go to:  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3555592/

Allergic Reactions:

Poinsettia shares some allergenic proteins with natural rubber latex because these tropical plants have common botanical origins.  When a leaf or stem is broken, a small drip of sap can be released.  About 40% of individuals with latex allergy may develop cross-sensitivity with poinsettias.  The symptoms are usually a rash (allergic contact dermatitis) with skin contact.  Wiping the sap off immediately is likely to prevent significant symptoms.  Rarely a severe IgE-mediated allergic reactions including anaphylaxis may occur.  In a 2007 report published in Allergy, Kimata described 2 infants with eczema and latex allergy who had anaphylaxis after touching poinsettia leaves.  Such severe reactions are rare (or rarely reported).

A latex allergy expert, Dr. Kevin Kelly authored a helpful article found at: http://latexallergyresources.org/articles/natural-rubber-latex-allergy-and-poinsettia-plants

In general, individuals with latex allergy should avoid using poinsettia as a decorative addition to their holiday. Or, buy an artificial poinsettia plant!

At Family Allergy Asthma & Sinus Care, we want our latex-allergic patients to enjoy the holiday poinsettias (from a distance!).

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