A woman’s Facebook post and shocking photos have gone viral after she shared her experience with wild parsnip—a plant she encountered along the road in Vermont, which caused serious burns and blisters up and down both of her legs. She’s hoping that by spreading the word, she can help others avoid this type of reaction.
Charlotte Murphy posted the warning on Saturday, more than a week after she first brushed against the invasive species during a pit stop along a Vermont road. In an interview with NBC5, Murphy said she stopped to go to the bathroom in a mowed-down area with picnic tables.
On Facebook, Murphy describes wild parsnip as an invasive species that looks like yellow Queen Anne’s lace “and is found along roadsides/guardrails that has been spreading each year throughout Vermont and other states.” She didn’t realize that her leg had rubbed against the plant’s broken leaves, she wrote, “so I went about my day in the hot sun.”
But, according to Murphy, the sun activated the plant’s sap and sparked the damaging effects it can have on skin. “A few bumps appeared within a couple days but no pain or itch,” she wrote. “I continued working out in the sun allowing more sweat and UV rays to hit the skin, making the reaction that came a week later much worse than if I had washed my skin right away and stayed out of the sun.”
Murphy’s leg became extremely red and itchy over the next few days, until she woke up with large, yellow blisters on her leg. “Throughout the day they grew exponentially to a point where my leg was swollen and I couldn’t walk,” she wrote. The blisters soon spread to her other leg, arms, and fingers.
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So, what is wild parsnip?
Wild parsnip (whose scientific name is Pastinaca sativa L.) is common in many parts of Vermont. It is also found throughout most of the United States, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
Pastinaca sativa L. is actually the same plant that farmers and home gardeners harvest to get the parsnips we eat in soups and roasted-veggie dishes. But when it grows wild, the plant produces tiny yellow flowers during its second year. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the plant has grooved, hairless stems and typically stands between two and five feet tall.
Wild parsnips and related plants produce a sap that can react with sunlight to form a compound that’s toxic to skin cells, says Eike Blohm, MD, an emergency medicine physician and medical toxicologist at the University of Vermont. Touching the plant itself isn’t harmful, unless the stem or leaves are broken and that sap is exposed.
“This unfortunate experience is called phytophotodermatitis,” he says, and it’s a natural defense against certain types of plant-eating fungus. “Humans aren’t the intended target, but if we absorb this substance topically and then go out in the sun, it can have really devastating effects.” The chemical reaction can damage DNA and cause skin cells to die, which can cause blisters and scarring.
The plant is a close relative of carrots, parsley, celery, and giant hogweed, all of which can cause similar skin reactions in sensitive individuals, says Dr. Blohm. Earlier this month, a Virginia teen made headlines after suffering second-degree burns from wild hogweed exposure. Experts say that plant’s growth is spreading to new states and regions.
Eating citrus fruits and taking certain medications can also have similar effects for people who are sensitive to plants’ light-reactive compounds. For example, one 2014 case report from the University of Vermont describes a woman who had developed a rash on her hands after baking with lime juice and then going out in the sun.
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How to protect yourself
People who think they’ve been exposed to wild parsnip sap should wash their skin thoroughly with soap and water as soon as possible, says Dr. Blohm. They should also keep the exposed area out of the sun for at least 48 hours.
“Apply sunscreen and stay inside, because if you don’t get irradiated with UV light, you shouldn’t get those symptoms,” he says. “Once the blisters form, there’s no antidote; we can only treat it the way we’d treat a burn.”
Dr. Blohm cautions that, while wild parsnip and giant hogweed are most likely to be found along roadsides and near creeks, “they are weeds that spread very easily, and they can sometimes spread into people’s backyards.” If they do appear near your home, he says, wear full-body protection to pull them out, “or hire a professional to remove it.”
The Vermont Department of Health also recommends washing any clothing that may have been exposed to plant sap right away. And if you do have to work with or around the plant, try to do so on cloudy days, when the sun is less likely to react with the sap.
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If a reaction does occur, call your doctor or seek treatment at a medical facility or burn center. Because the sap can cause injuries similar to second-degree chemical burns, the affected areas may need to be cleaned and bandaged to avoid infection. Sometimes, says Dr. Blohm, skin grafts are required.
Thankfully, Murphy is expected to make a full recovery. After first seeking treatment at an urgent-care facility, she’s now seeing doctors at the University of Vermont’s burn clinic. “The progress is slow but the blisters and swelling have gone down,” she wrote in her Facebook post.
As her arms and legs heal, Murphy is imploring people to “tell EVERYONE you know” about the dangers of wild parsnip—adding that pets can also get burned if they come into contact with the plant’s oil.
She apologized in her post for the graphic nature of her photos, but added, “they are the best way to show people what wild parsnip does.” And her plan to spread awareness about the toxic plant seems to be working: Since Saturday, the post has been shared more than 39,000 times.