In every issue of WebMD the Magazine, we ask experts to answer readers' questions about a wide range of topics, including some of the oldest -- and most cherished -- medical myths out there. For our November-December 2011 issue, we asked Michael Wahl, MD, medical director of the Illinois Poison Center, in Chicago, about the relative risks of eating poinsettia.
Q: I've always heard that poinsettias are poisonous to kids and pets. My husband says that's hogwash. Who's right?
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Like the Christmas myths about Santa Claus, flying reindeer, and a toy workshop in the North Pole, the belief that poinsettias are poisonous is FALSE.
No one is sure how this myth started, although it's often attributed to the 1919 death of a girl whose parents thought she had eaten poinsettia leaves. The truth is, a kid would have to eat about 500 poinsettia leaves to get sick.
"There haven't been any deaths reported due to eating poinsettia leaves,” Wahl says.
That's not to say they're harmless. If a child eats enough poinsettia leaves (say five), he may become nauseated or throw up. But he's not going to die. And he's probably not going to eat more than one or two bites in the first place because the leaves are "reported to have an unpleasant taste,” Wahl says.
Here's what you should worry about your child swallowing during the holidays: holly berries (which are toxic), alcohol left in glasses, and small ornaments that look like food.