Health Watch By Steve Mullenix

The North Jefferson News




As the holidays near, the mistletoe will be hung over the doorways, holly will decorate the fireplace and friends and family will be arriving with those ever so beautiful holiday poinsettias.

While these festive appointments can add beauty and increase the holiday spirit, they can be harmful to children and pets.

Let’s look at some of our holiday favorites in more detail:

• The Poinsettia (euphorbia pulcherrima) belongs to the plant commonly known as spurges.

The plant was first introduced to the Unites States from Mexico around 1820, by Joel Robert Poinsett, hence it’s name.

The poinsettia has gotten a bad rap for a number of years. It’s been falsely accused of being poisonous, yet no human deaths from this plant have ever been recorded.

The rumors arise from a highly questionable report of a single fatality in Hawaii more than 75 years ago when an army officer’s child ate one leaf.

According to sources, a 50 pound child would have to eat more than 600 leaves to exceed experimental doses needed to produce a toxic effect.

The sap from the plant can also cause a poison-ivy like blister on contact, and should be washed off the skin immediately. That’s why it’s important to keep these plants from easy reach of children and pets.

• Mistletoe (phoradendron serotinum) – What would Christmas be without this little twig?

Who has not stolen a holiday smooch under the mistletoe? Actually, mistletoe is a parasitic plant that lives in a number of different types of trees in the United States. Many toxic compounds have been found in various species of both American and European mistletoe.

Whereas poinsettia ingestion produces mild effects in pets, the adverse effects caused by mistletoe are more severe and can include GI irritation, reduction in urine output, tremors, slower heartbeat, lower body temperature, seizures, coma and in very severe cases, death.

Treatment for minimal mistletoe exposures are usually self-limiting and include removal of the plant and allowing the stomach to settle down. If more severe symptoms appear such as changes in the blood pressure, or severe vomiting and dehydration, then medical attention would be advised.

• Christmas Holly (llex aquifolium) – is a member of the aquifoliaceae plant family.

Although this plant is indigenous to the southeastern United States, it is also planted as an ornamental evergreen throughout North America.

There are 29 species of holly that are considered toxic. The best known of these is the English or Christmas holly. All parts of the holly plant are considered potentially toxic, not just those brilliant red berries.

The toxins in holly are mainly composed of methylxanthines (i.e. caffeine, theobromine, and theophylline) and glucosidic spanins.

True toxicity from holly ingestion is uncommon. The common problems associated with ingestion are GI irritation and mild to moderate central nervous system depression. In the case where animals have consumed a large quantity of holly, emesis (vomiting) may be necessary to reduce the likelihood of more severe symptoms. Water or milk can be given to reduce the GI irritation.

• Christmas Cacti (schlumbergera truncate) – is a member of the cactaceane family, and is thus a true cactus, although not a desert plant.

It’s native to the jungles of southeast Brazil. It’s also known as crab’s claw cactus, and is characterized by its flattened spineless branches, which have prominent notches at the margins.

Flowers appear at the stem tips and can be in a variety of colors from pink, to red, orange, yellow and white. These plants have been reported to induce some allergic skin reactions, and rhinoconjunctivitis (a combined nasal and eye irritation) in nursery workers.

These plants are not considered toxic, and if ingested most commonly result in only mild gastric upset.

Babies, in particular seem fascinated by the bright berries and shiny colorful leaves found on many of these holiday floras. We all know that whatever a baby can reach, into the mouth it goes. So these little tykes require a little extra precaution around these festive ornaments.

If any ingestion is suspected, don’t hesitate to call the poison control center at (800) 292-6678 or (800) 222-122. Since proper identification to the plant ingested is important, be sure to take a sample of the plant with you to the physician or vets office should medical assistance be necessary.

Keeping the holiday greenery on the mantle, table or over the doorway and out of the reach of child and animals will help assure festive and beautiful decorations for all to enjoy.

Steve Mullenix (R.Ph) co-owns The Pharmacy in Mount Olive with his wife, Sherry Mullenix (J.D., R.N.). They can be reached at 631-1201.

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