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Allergies Health Center

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Surprisingly Ouchy Plants

By Brenda Conaway
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Even experienced gardeners have to deal with irritating plants that can cut, sting, and cause painful or itchy, irritated skin. Here are some ways to relieve the discomfort and treat skin abrasions from plants.

Irritating Plants

A cactus is pretty obvious in showing its thorny side. Other plants are more subtle, but no less ouchy. "Some plants are just very irritating to the skin," says Rajani Katta, MD. "Some from the presence of thorns or needles, but other plants have sharp edges or hairs on them that can cause skin irritation."

Katta, who is the director of the contact dermatitis clinic at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, says plants that cause skin abrasions and irritated skin may have these features:

Sharp-edged or pointed leaves. Plants such as agave or yucca have needle-sharp leaves, and getting too close can leave you with a cut or skin abrasion. Some decorative plants such as pampas grass look soft, but actually have razor-sharp edges that can easily slice skin. And holly plants, while pretty to look at, can deliver a sharp poke if you touch their leaves.

Thorns. No surprise here. Classic beauties such as rose bushes and bougainvillea – just two examples of thorny shrubs -- are notoriously prickly.

Spines and glochids. One look at a barrel cactus and you know to keep your distance. But some types of cactus, like the prickly pear, are covered with very fine, hair-like, barbed thorns called glochids. Glochids can become embedded at the slightest touch and are hard to see to remove.

Stem and leaf hairs. These fine hairs can be found on the stems and leaves of plants such as borage, an herb sometimes used in cooking, and seemingly innocent flowering plants such as forget-me-nots and dogwood trees. Because they are harmless-looking, stem and leaf hairs can catch people by surprise and cause skin irritation.

Barely visible irritant fibers. Home gardeners may be surprised to find out that tulip bulbs can cause skin abrasions. "Because these fibers are so small, you don't think of tulips as being dangerous in any way," Katta says. But people who frequently handle tulips bulbs can get a condition called "tulip fingers," caused by a combination of the irritating fibers and a certain chemical in the bulb.

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