Lots of indoor gardeners adore Dieffenbachia for its hardiness, its shade tolerance, and its exuberant, multicolored foliage. Yet there are persistent rumors that these plants are incredibly toxic, capable of causing blindness and death in a matter of minutes. Is your gorgeous Dumb Cane a killer in disguise? Or is it safe to keep in your house?
The juice of a Dieffenbachia can cause painful sores and swelling if it comes in contact with mucous membranes, so don’t let it get in your mouth or eyes. However, it’s almost never fatal to humans. As long as you wash your hands after touching this plant and keep it out of reach of small children or pets that like to nibble, your Dumb Cane shouldn’t cause any trouble.
If you do accidentally touch your eye with Dieffenbachia sap, flush it thoroughly with water – the National Capital Poison Center recommends rinsing for at least 15 minutes. If you get it in your mouth or on your lips, rinse it out with cool water and suck on some ice to reduce the pain. Severe Dieffenbachia poisoning can cause airway obstruction; call 911 if you or someone in your home is experiencing serious facial swelling or having trouble breathing or swallowing.
[IMPORTANT NOTE: We at The Healthy Houseplant are not medical professionals of any kind, and nothing on this site is a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have medical questions, consult your physician or a qualified healthcare provider; if you think you may have a medical emergency, please call your doctor or dial Emergency Services right away.]
Can Dieffenbachia Kill You?
The internet loves to panic about things, and for a brief period a few years back, Dieffenbachias were the hot new fear fad. Maybe you sought out this article because you stumbled onto a lingering echo from that viral scare, which was triggered by a blog post claiming that the plant could kill a child in under a minute.
We’re happy to report that this claim is a wild exaggeration. In fact, it’s hard to find any records of deaths from Dumb Cane poisoning. One researcher who specifically studies Dieffenbachia toxicity told Snopes that he’s never seen or heard of a fatal case.
However, even though it probably won’t kill you, Dieffenbachia poisoning will still absolutely ruin your day. If the sap touches the inside of your mouth, it will cause irritation, swelling, painful sores, and uncontrollable drooling. If enough Dumb Cane juice gets into your throat, you may experience difficulty breathing, swallowing, or speaking.
Getting the sap in your eye isn’t much better; it causes just as much swelling and irritation as it would in your mouth, along with temporary corneal damage. Luckily, we couldn’t find any indication that Dieffenbachia can cause permanent blindness.
Part of the reason that really serious Dieffenbachia poisoning is rare is that its effects make it difficult to chew and swallow, so it’s rare that anyone eats very much of the plant. However, an unlucky soul who does manage to swallow a significant quantity of Dumb Cane can expect nasty gastrointestinal symptoms, up to and including bloody holes in the intestinal lining.
The name “Dumb Cane” actually comes from the plant’s poisonous nature. “Dumb” used to be a synonym for “mute,” and it’s long been known that the painful swelling induced by Dieffenbachia can make people unable to speak for days at a time. There are records of criminals using the plant to stop witnesses from testifying in court.
Can Dieffenbachia Kill Pets?
Like humans, cats and dogs usually recover from Dieffenbachia poisoning within a few hours or days and suffer no long-term harm. They’ll be in a lot of pain and discomfort in the meantime, though. The symptoms are the same as in humans: irritation and swelling of the affected area, with sores, lots of drooling, and difficulty swallowing if the plant was ingested.
Although the risk of death is low, you should still call your vet if you think your fuzzy pal has come in contact with Dieffenbachia sap. Pain medication can help make your pet a little less miserable while it’s recovering, and the vet may also want to prescribe something to reduce the danger of intestinal damage.
A dog or cat that’s been poisoned by Dumb Cane may lick or smack its lips repeatedly, drool heavily, paw at its mouth, or refuse food and water. Vomiting, diarrhea, or breathing problems are more severe but less common symptoms. And, of course, if you notice that your Dieffenbachia is damaged and your pet seems distressed, call the vet.
What Makes Dieffenbachia Dangerous?
The toxicity of Dumb Cane is actually a one-two punch. The first blow comes from a chemical called calcium oxalate or CaOx, which forms microscopic barbed spikes called raphides. The Dieffenbachia plant stores these little needles all throughout its body within specialized idioblast cells.
Raphides are surprisingly common among houseplants, especially Dieffenbachia’s cousins in the aroid family. Other popular aroids which contain calcium oxalate spikes include Anthuriums, Monsteras, Philodendrons, and ZZ Plants.
Raphides apparently serve as a defense mechanism, sort of like miniature porcupine quills. Mechanical pressure – say, from an herbivore chewing on a leaf – triggers idioblast cells to rapidly shoot out raphides into the surrounding tissue. When they dig into the skin, or into the soft tissues of an animal’s mouth or eyes, these crystal darts create tiny, irritating cuts.
Those microscopic wounds are made much worse by the harsh enzymes lurking in Dieffenbachia’s sap. These compounds flow into the openings created by the raphides and begin breaking down the proteins in the victim’s cells. That’s what creates the ulcers that make Dumb Cane poisoning so painful.
Safety Tips for Dieffenbachia
All this talk about razor-sharp crystals and swollen airways might be off-putting when you’re thinking of welcoming a new plant into your life. But Dieffenbachia can be a wonderful houseplant as long as you take some basic precautions.
First of all, if you have pets that like to chew on everything in sight, make sure your Dumb Cane is well out of their reach. The same goes for small children who are trying to learn about the world by putting their mouths all over it.
A high enough shelf will do the trick for dogs and most kids. Keeping cats out may be a little trickier, but strong smells – especially citrus – will often make them stay away. Try spritzing the plant with diluted lemon or lime juice, or placing a few orange peels in the pot. You might also be able to distract your feline pals by keeping a decoy plant, like a pot of cat grass, in easy reach. But for those persistent kitties, Dieffenbachia may pose too great a risk to keep at home.
Take care not to let any part of a Dieffenbachia touch your mouth or eyes. If your plant does somehow come in contact with an eye, flush it with cool water for around 15 minutes. If you get Dieffenbachia in your mouth, wipe it out with a damp cloth, then rinse and spit repeatedly. Don’t gargle! You don’t want to risk washing the sap into your throat.
Mild irritation from Dieffenbachia can usually be reduced with ice or a cold pack. Seek medical attention if you or someone in your household has difficulty breathing or swallowing, or if you spot severe inflammation of the mouth or throat.
Simply touching the leaves or stems of a Dumb Cane is usually fine, though some people are more sensitive than others. If you notice that you get a rash from your Dieffenbachia, you’ll want to start wearing garden gloves when you handle it.
Anytime you do touch a Dieffenbachia with your bare hands, wash them with soap and water afterward. And launder your clothes if they get Dumb Cane juice on them. Always glove up when you’re cutting, pinching, uprooting, or dividing a Dieffenbachia, because the plant is more likely to ooze its toxic sap when you’re disturbing it.
Despite their scary reputation, Dieffenbachias can be fantastic additions to your home as long as you handle them with appropriate caution. Now that you understand the risks and the safeguards, you should be able to raise one of these gorgeous plants with no trouble at all.