British schoolgirl suffers third degree burns from poisonous weed

In June 2015, 10-year-old Lauren Fuller and her family had recently relocated from Bristol, England to Shotts, Scotland. An avid fisherman, her father Russell decided to take Lauren along to enjoy a Sunday afternoon in the great outdoors. While he was fishing near Loch Lomond, Lauren amused herself building a den on the riverbank. It seemed harmless enough, but unbeknownst to Lauren, while she was playing in the vegetation, she had come into contact with a highly toxic plant.

"She was absolutely fine on the Sunday — she thought nothing of it," Russell recalled. "But on the Monday her hands were red raw and by the Tuesday she had big blisters. It was really, really bad."

Warning beware of a plant called giant hogweed I took my daughter fishing on Sunday she broke the stem and some of the...

Posted by Russell Fuller on Thursday, July 2, 2015

When the Fullers initially brought Lauren to the hospital, they were told she had sunburn. But as the symptoms quickly worsened, that didn't seem quite right. They had never seen a sunburn like this before. So they decided to have a look on Google and after typing in Lauren's symptoms, they correctly concluded that Lauren had come into contact with giant hogweed, an invasive species brought to the UK from Asia in the late 19th century.

The giant hogweed's sap is phototoxic, which means that its poisonous properties are activated by exposure to sunlight or ultraviolet rays. The initial reaction to exposure may seem inconsequential — a red, itchy rash — but within 48 hours, painful blisters can begin to develop.

The plants grow up to 18 feet high and have a characteristic cluster of white flowers that resembles a lace parasol. One horticulturalist described them as "Queen Anne's lace on steroids."

The Fullers returned to the hospital and this time, Lauren was admitted, later transferred to a larger hospital where she could be seen by a specialist. "They put these little gloves on her to cover the blisters and when they took them off a couple of hours later her skin had completely melted," Russell reported. "Lauren is a tough little cookie, but she was crying a lot. She was in a lot of pain and she was really worried about what was going to happen to her hands."

Although she will likely have some long-term scarring, Lauren made a strong recovery once her condition was properly diagnosed and treated. Nevertheless, her parents are keen to see that no-one else's child goes through such a harrowing and painful experience. Russell believes that public lands where giant hogweed is prone to grow would benefit from warning signs to help hikers and others to recognize and avoid the dangerous plant. "There are signs to warn people not to go swimming, so why not for this?," he asked.

The giant hogweed is a problem not only in the UK, but can be found in many parts of Europe as well as North America. Here are the plant's characteristics:

  • A thick, hairy, single stem that has dark reddish or purple spots. Grows between 6—18 ft in height. 
  • Deeply lobed and sharply toothed leaves with three leaflets. The same purple spots appear on the leaf stalk but the leaf itself is practically hairless. The leaves at the bottom of the plant can be very large and the ones a the top smaller.
  • When flowering, the cluster of flowers resembles Queen Anne's lace.

All parts of the plant are poisonous when touched. If you come into contact with the plant, keep the affected area covered until you can get to water and then rinse off thoroughly. Wash again with soap and water when you get home.

Lauren isn't the first person to come into contact with giant hogweed and she likely won't be the last, but thanks to her family's efforts to increase awareness of its consequences, hopefully more people can enjoy nature confident that they'll be able to identify and avoid the dangerous plant. And better yet, to alert authorities when they do find it so that the weed can be properly removed. Here's to having a safe and worry free wander!

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