Hoaxes & Rumors

Is the Dumb Cane (Dieffenbachia) a Deadly Houseplant?

Is the Dumb Cane (Dieffenbachia) a Deadly Houseplant?
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A warning graphic with the words “Dangerous Plant” has circulated online for several years. Is there any truth to the rumor that this common houseplant is deadly?

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Is the Dumb Cane (Dieffenbachia) a Deadly Houseplant?

There is some truth to the story, although as with many things on the internet, it is somewhat exaggerated.

The story below has been circulating for several years and tells us that the Dumb Cane, or Dieffenbachia, can kill a child in a minute, an adult in 15 minutes, and can cause blindness if contact is made with the eyes.

The Story in Circulation

“MUST READ GUYS,,,SOME SORT OF AWARENESS,……….

This plant is very common at our houses, gardens, parks and offices (popular as indoor & outdoor plant). The plant (Dumb Cane or Dieffenbachia) is now proven to be DANGEROUS, so, please take care!

I know that the leaf of this plant causes itching if its sap (milk) touches your skin. But there are more dangerous facts! Read the details below.

May be useful for you. You better believe it.

PLEASE READ BELOW:

One of my friends almost lost her daughter who put a piece of the leaf of this plant in her mouth and her tongue swelled to the point of suffocation. This is one plant but there are others with the same characteristics of coloring. Those are also poisonous and we should get rid of them. Please watch out for our children. As we all leave our children at home in the hands of a nanny, we should give them a safe environment where they can play .

Name: Dumb Cane or Dieffenbachia

“This plant that we have in our homes and offices is extremely dangerous!

This plant is common in Rwanda. It is a DEADLY POISON, most specially for the children. It can kill a kid in less than a minute and an adult in 15 minutes. It should be uprooted from gardens and taken out of offices. If touched, one should never touch his/her eyes; it can cause partial or permanent blindness. PLEASE ALERT YOUR FRIENDS”

The Truth About Dumb Cane (Dieffenbachia)

The name “Dumb Cane” refers to the symptoms that sometimes occur when a person ingests the plant, which includes speechlessness due to extensive saliva production and swelling of the lips, mouth, tongue, and throat. Although it is possible for rare cases of ingestion to cause severe symptoms, it is generally thought to be only mildly toxic to humans, and symptoms normally clear up in a matter of days. A Dumb Cane website run by the Australian state of Queensland says the following of the plant:

“The leaves, if chewed, will cause copious salivation and an intense burning sensation, followed by a swelling of the lips, mouth, tongue and throat. This causes difficulty in breathing and swallowing, as well as making the tongue immobile rendering the person speechless. This effect can continue for several days. Handling the plant may cause skin irritation… Seek urgent medical attention if lips or tongue become swollen or if there is difficulty breathing or swallowing.

The U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institute of Health provide a web page devoted to Dieffenbachia poisoning. According to this site, eating the plant can cause poisoning due to the presence of Oxalic acid and the protein Asparagine within the plant. As mentioned above, handling Dieffenbachia can irritate the skin, and the eyes can also be affected if they are rubbed by an area of the skin that has been come into contact with the plant.

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The following are listed as symptoms of Dumb Cane (Dieffenbachia) poisoning:

  • Burning mouth and/or throat
  • Swelling and blistering of the mouth/tongue
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Hoarse voice
  • Pain in the eyes
  • Damage to cornea of the eye

If someone has ingested Dumb Cane and is suffering from Diefenbachia poisoning, the U.S. Library of Medicine and the National Institute of Health recommend taking the person to the emergency room and/or calling the National Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222. The National Poison Control Center is a free service available 24/7 in the United States. They also recommend washing any skin that has come into contact with the plant, rinsing out the eyes, wiping out the mouth with a washcloth that has been dipped in cold water, and drinking milk.

Danger to Pets

Dangerous PlantMany versions of the warning circulating on the internet focus on children and adults, but it should be pointed out that the Dumb Cane is considered toxic to pets as well. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) regards Dumb Cane as being toxic to dogs and cats and lists possible symptoms as: “Oral irritation, intense burning and irritation of mouth, tongue and lips, excessive drooling, vomiting, difficulty swallowing.” If your pet has ingested Dieffenbachia, the ASPCA recommends calling your local veterinarian or the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center at 888-426-4435. It should be noted, however, that the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center may charge callers a consultation fee of $65.

Pet Poison Helpline describes a pet’s reacion to the Dumb Cane as follows:

The family of dumbcane plants contain insoluble crystals of calcium oxalate called raphites. Chewing or biting into the plant releases the crystals which penetrate tissue resulting in injury. When dogs or cats ingest insoluble calcium oxalate-containing plants, clinical signs may be seen immediately and include pawing at face (secondary to oral pain), drooling, foaming, and vomiting. Moderate to severe swelling of the lips, tongue, oral cavity, and upper airway may also be seen, making it difficult to breathe or swallow.

Bottom Line

Dumb Cane (Dieffenbachia) can be harmful if eaten, though in most cases the symptoms would not approach those dire warnings circulated online. There are many items in the home that shouldn’t be eaten, and this is one of them. That said, this is a fairly common plant and probably shouldn’t be tossed out just because eating it is toxic. When handling or pruning a Dumb Cane, it’s best to wear gloves in order to avoid getting the sap on the skin or in the eyes. It is also a good idea to keep them out of reach of children and pets. If someone is suffering from Dieffenbachia poisoning, they should be taken to the emergency room and/or the National Poison Control Center should be called (800-222-1222). If a pet is suffering from Dieffenbachia poisoning, they should be taken to the vet and/or the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center should be called (888-426-4435).

Have you ever had a reaction from a Dumb Cane? If so, let us know in the comments below.

Updated July 6, 2015
Originally published September 2012

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