The Grapevine

What Is Giant Hogweed? Plant Leaves Teenager With Third-Degree Burns

Giant hogweed, a dangerous species of weed, left a teenager from Virginia with severe burns on his face and arms. Alex Childress, 17, was working a landscaping job July 10 when he cut down the plant, unaware of its toxic nature.

Later that day, the outer layer of his skin on the areas of contact, started to peel off. At the time, the teen believed he was experiencing nothing more than a bad sunburn.

"Alex continued working throughout the day once he got it on his face," his father explained. "When he got home he got into the shower and the skin on his face was basically peeling away and peeling off."

His mother, a nurse at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), suspected he might have cut down a hogweed. The toxic plant is identified by its clusters of white flowers as well as its size, range from seven feet to 14 feet high. The stems are covered in purple splotches as well as coarse white hairs.

Once the teen identified the plant in a photo as the one he cut down, he was admitted into the VCU burn center for treatment. He was found to have third-degree burns all over his face and arms.

Childress described how the doctors had him stand in the shower for over an hour as they scrubbed him with soap to reduce the PH level.

"I had hot water running over open wounds, that was probably the worst part. That or the burn treatment where they scraped off the dead skin," he added.

Childress was discharged after spending a few days in the intensive care unit, provided with bandages and ointment to use on a daily basis. As the family set up a GoFundMe to cover medical bills, the teen explained his recovery process will take a long time.

"I can’t go out into the sun for anywhere from two to six months," he said. "My face could be sensitive to light for a year up to two years."

The sap from the plant causes the skin to become extremely sensitive to sunlight, thus leading to burns and scarring upon exposure to the sun. Sometimes, the plant may even cause blindness if it comes into contact with the eyes.

The giant hogweed is listed as a Federal Noxious Weed under the Plant Protection Act, which means it is illegal to import or transport between states without a permit.

In the case of contact with the plant, it is advised to wash the affected area with cold water and soap as soon as possible. Avoiding sunlight exposure for 48 hours and seeing a doctor in case of a reaction are also recommended by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. 

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