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Wild parsnip, giant hogweed: Toxic plants to watch out for

Outdoor summer activities can quickly turn hazardous if you come into contact with often harmless-looking but poisonous plants.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources is warning residents of one such poisonous weed sprouting up across the state, which can cause severe burning and itching.

Large patches of wild parsnip, also called poison parsnip, can be found in road ditches, fields, along bike trails and in prairie areas, CBS affiliate KCCI reports. In a short amount of time, it can take over an area and crowd out the native plants.

Iowa resident Wendy Prusha had an unfortunate encounter with the weed while cleaning up the creek outside her home two weeks ago.

"I just got down, and I was digging them and got down to the roots," she said.

What seemed like a routine gardening task suddenly turned into a trip to the emergency room. "It's a constant burning," Prusha said. "It just bubbled up overnight."

State officials said many people don't realize they are coming in contact with wild parsnip until burns, blisters and welts later develop.

"Every season we see some, but it seems like there's more of it this year than we've had in some previous years," dermatologist Roger Ceilley told the station.

Ceilley said after wild parsnip is touched, the plant's sap and the sun break down skin cells and tissues. "(Wild parsnip) makes your skin exquisitely sensitive to sunlight, so you get a bad sunburn everywhere the sap touches your skin," he said.

The damage left blistered and cracked red skin on Prusha's forearm. "The oils sit on your skin," she said. "It eats away your skin."

Wendy Prusha of Union, Iowa, suffered a blistering rash from wild parsnip. KCCI

The open wound can lead to infection. Anyone who has contact with the poisonous plant should shower immediately, wash thoroughly, and stay inside, out of the sunlight.

The weed looks like a dill plant or Queen Anne's lace, with yellow flowers. It grows about 4 feet tall.

Prusha immediately sprayed and mowed the area, effectively killing the dangerous weed. Her mission now is to inform others about the pain and suffering caused by what looks like a simple wildflower.

"Let them know what it looks like and tell them to stay away from it," she said.

Other poisonous plants

Another toxic plant health officials warn about each year is giant hogweed, which can grow over 14 feet long.

The plant's sap contains toxins that, like wild parsnip, can cause a skin reaction that's extremely sensitive to light. A blister may form within two days and can cause scarring that can last from few months to several years. Furthermore, the sap can cause blindness if gets into the eye.

If you come in contact with giant hogweed, get out of the sun immediately and wash the exposed area with cold water. Applying sunscreen to the affected areas could also prevent further reactions.

Further preventive measures include wearing long sleeves, pants or boots to prevent contact with poisonous plants. Exposed clothing should be washed separately with hot water and detergent following a day out.

More well-known poisonous plants that can put a damper on summer include poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac.

If you come in contact with these, the CDC recommends immediately rinsing your skin with rubbing alcohol or dishwashing soap. Using wet compresses, oatmeal baths, or an antihistamine can help reduce itching or blistering.

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