QUESTION: Is touching oleander poisonous? I know it’s poisonous if eaten but am not sure whether it can make you sick if you touch it. — Martha F.
ANSWER: While touching the evergreen shrub oleander (Nerium oleander) does not cause the potentially fatal effects that ingestion does, it can cause some negative effects. Just so you’re informed about how poisonous ingesting oleander is, know that consuming just one oleander leaf can kill an adult. The reaction to touching oleander is not that serious, but does have some toxicity effects that we’ll explain here.
Touching an oleander plant can result in skin irritation, particularly if your skin comes into contact with the sap inside the plant. There are precautions you should take when working with your oleander plants to avoid skin irritation.
Especially when pruning an oleander plant, you should wear gardening gloves to keep your skin safe. Then wash your hands immediately after you’re done working with the oleander.
Even your gardening tools should be cleaned and sterilized after being used on oleander. Soak any tools you used on the oleander plant in a mixture of half water and half alcohol. Let your tools sit in this mixture for five minutes. Then rinse them with clear running water and let them air dry.
Do not burn any part of the oleander plant, because the smoke can cause irritation to both eyes and lungs. You should also not use oleander in your compost heap. Put the clippings in a bag to keep them out of contact with people and animals, then throw them away.
Do not underestimate the toxicity of oleander when ingested. As we’ve mentioned, eating just one leaf can kill an adult. Just consuming a small piece of a leaf can be fatal, as can using the stems as skewers for food. So it doesn’t matter which part of the plant. Even honey made from oleander flowers is poisonous.
Oleander is poisonous because oleandrin contains two cardiac glycosides called oleandroside and nerioside. These dangerous compounds are present throughout the entire plant, from flowers and branches to seeds, flowers, and even the nectar in flowers. (The lethal dose is quite small, and children have died simply from chewing on an oleander leaf or from sucking the nectar from the flowers.)
Symptoms of oleander poisoning due to ingestion include diarrhea, dizziness, drowsiness and lethargy, nausea, serious stomach pain, vomiting, visual disturbances, confusion and weakness. It can also cause cardiac abnormalities such as cardiac arrhythmias and irregular heartbeat. The pupils of the eyes may also be dilated if oleander has been consumed. The most serious symptoms include respiratory paralysis, coma, and even death. Contact your doctor or go to the emergency room if you believe someone has oleander poisoning.
In addition to being poisonous to humans, oleander is also toxic to pets and livestock, including cattle. Symptoms of ingestion in animals include colic, diarrhea which may contain blood, difficulty breathing or shallow breathing, loss of coordination, and sweating. Animals that have consumed oleander may have muscle tremors or not be able to stand up. Contact your veterinarian immediately if you suspect your pet has consumed oleander.
Oleander is a gorgeous plant that you’ll often see in places like Texas and California, but because it is so toxic, we do not recommend growing it in households with children or pets. Some people find the risk outweighs the benefits even in households made up solely of adults.
After reading this article, you know all about oleander poisoning by ingestion and the skin irritation that can result from handling. You’ve learned how to safely work with your oleander plants, too. If you choose to grow oleander despite its toxicity, make sure to follow the guidelines we provided on how to handle oleander plants safely.
Learn More About Oleander Toxicity
I originally did not know anything about the oleander tree, since I’ve never seen it before moving from the East coast to CA. In springtime, I pulled long grass out from beneath the oleander in our yard..
I washed my hands as usual after yardwork, but the next day I had an itchy rash on my arm which I assumed was poison ivy. But I just couldn’t figure out where I got in contact with it. Months later, I was told about the oleander being toxic. Now I know! I still, after about 6 Mos. have that initial area on my skin where the sap got on me & it still itches! Not like at 1st, but it’s there. I think that being diabetic could add to the slow healing process. Beware of this pretty, yet toxic beauty!
Austin Lee says
I’m going to share here how I came in contact with an oleander and I have been having pain from it. In my yard there were 2 very large trees. I wanted to remove them and I cut the branches and proceeded to remove the roots. After digging around it and filling it with water I put my hands in and taking a saw started cutting the oleander roots. The sap was in the mud and water and now a week later I’ve been to urgent care and to the pharmacy for antibiotics and a creme for the swelling, infection and pain. Pain is at level 10 and it is unbearable. It’s only on one finger that had an open cut. Hopefully this helps some To know why they are hurting and to stay away from the plant!