A teenager from Spotsylvania, Virginia, ended up in the hospital with second- and third-degree burns after touching a giant hogweed plant while landscaping, his summer job.
As he was clipping a tall plant, it brushed against his face. He initially thought the irritation was a sunburn, until he got home and his skin started peeling off.
At the time, Childress was working at a commercial site in Fredericksburg, Virginia, outside of a factory. “I clipped down a tall weed and it brushed against my face but I just carried it off and I didn’t think much of it because that happens all the time,” Childress told BuzzFeed News. He was wearing a hat and a sleeveless shirt, so the toxic plant came into direct contact with the skin on his face and arms.
At the time, Childress was not aware of the giant hogweed and didn’t recognize it as the plant he cut down. Although his face became irritated shortly after the plant brushed against him, Childress assumed it was just a sunburn from being outside all day. He didn’t realize it was more serious until he got home after work that evening.
“When I went to take a shower, the hot water hit my face and the skin started peeling off,” Childress said. It wasn’t just your typical peeling from a sunburn either. “It was large portions and chunks of my skin coming off … my mom saw it and said I had third-degree burns,” Childress said. His mother showed him a picture of giant hogweed and he recognized the tall, flowering plant as the one he cut down.
Childress was taken to the hospital, then transferred to a burn unit, where he spent nearly three days receiving treatment for his injuries.
Childress was first taken to Spotsylvania Regional Medical Center on Tuesday night, then he was transferred to the Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center’s burn unit due to the extent of his injuries. Toxicology reports confirmed that Childress had suffered burns caused by the giant hogweed plant.
“At the hospital, they had me shower for an hour and a half to rinse my body and get the pH levels down so they could treat my burns,” he said. After removing all of the dead skin and blisters, doctors applied a variety of creams and ointments and bandaged Childress’s burns. “It hasn’t been too bad … and a lot of my friends have been here to comfort me and cheer me up,” said Childress.
Giant hogweed is an invasive species that was recently discovered in Virginia. Its sap can cause blistering burns, scars, and permanent blindness.
The large, flowering weed was introduced to the US in the early 1990s. The plant typically has a tall stalk with white flowers in umbrellalike clusters on the top, lobed leaves, and purplish-red stems. And when we say tall, we mean 7- to 14-feet tall. It’s huge.
The plant produces a toxic sap, full of photosensitizing chemicals that make the skin unable to protect itself from the sun. So the sap, combined with UV rays, can result in severe irritation, burns, and blisters. People are usually exposed when they brush against the bristles of the plant or break the stems and leaves.
The skin reaction can start as soon as 15 minutes after exposure and it usually takes about 48 hours for blisters to form, which then become pigmented and scab over. It can take weeks to heal and the scars from hogweed burns can last for months or even years. If the sap gets into the eyes, it can burn the cornea and cause permanent blindness. If you are exposed to giant hogweed sap, wash your skin with cold water, stay out of sunlight, and consult a physician.
Giant hogweed is normally found in parts of the Northern and Mid-Atlantic US; however, it is spreading to new parts of the country. In June, researchers at Virginia Tech announced that they had identified the state’s first giant hogweed population: 30 plants in Clarke County. The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) confirmed the presence of giant hogweed, but noted that it was intentionally planted by a homeowner and the species is not yet naturalized in the state.
However, anyone who spots the plant is asked to submit an invasive species report. Giant hogweed is listed as a noxious weed by the federal government, which means it’s illegal to transport across state lines without a permit.
Childress was released from the hospital Thursday night and his burns are slowly healing. However, he may have a long road to recovery ahead.
“Recovery is going good. My face is still peeling and a large section of my arm is going to peel soon … they said the wounds should heal in a month or two, but I have to stay out of the sun for up to six months to a year,” Childress said. Giant hogweed scars can take months to heal and the skin may be sensitive to sunlight for years.
However, staying out of the sun isn’t exactly practical for Childress, who plans on attending Virginia Tech in the fall on an ROTC scholarship and joining the corps of cadets. “There’s a possibility that I could have the scholarship revoked because, based on the burns, I couldn’t be in the sunlight or outside, and I couldn’t do exactly what is required for the scholarship,” said Childress (pictured above, showing his school spirit with the “VT” hand sign). He and his family started a GoFundMe campaign to help with medical bills and the loss of his job.
“If you see [giant hogweed], stay away,” Childress said. “If you touch it, wash it off as soon as possible to minimize damage to the skin.”
Caroline Kee is a health reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Caroline Kee at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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