Vermont Woman Recovers In Burn Clinic After Wild Parsnip Leaves Her Unable To Walk

Charlotte Murphy, 21, is recovering at home in Vermont after she was exposed to wild parsnip that caused boils to erupt on her body. Charlotte Murphy

When some leaves brushed up against a Vermont woman's body, she didn't think much about it, until her leg erupted in painful boils that left her unable to walk.

The woman, Charlotte Murphy, 21, is now recovering at home after contact with wild parsnip, a plant that can burn the skin of its victims. Several days after exposure to the plant, she woke up in horror at how swollen her leg had become, she told Newsweek.

"Oh my gosh. What is happening?" she recalled thinking.

"I couldn't walk at all because they were so tight on my skin. It hurt so much," she said.

Wild parsnip is one plant of several that has a particular defense mechanism that uses a chemical called furanocoumarins to protect against fungus. If a plant is infected with a fungus, this chemical is released and then, when it is exposed to UV light, the chemical produces a burning reaction that kills the infection. When humans are exposed, oil from the plant is absorbed into the skin and a similar reaction takes place inside their cells, medical toxicologist at the University of Vermont, Dr. Eike Blohm, told Newsweek.

"So we as human beings are not really the intended target of this, but we are essentially collateral damage," he said.

Charlotte Murphy, 21, is now recovering at home in Vermont after contact with wild parsnip, a plant that can burn the skin of its victims. Charlotte Murphy

Murphy says she was on the side of the highway somewhere between Bennington and Essex, Vermont when she remembers walking through some brush that could have contained wild parsnip, but she can't be sure of the exact location.

The plant is characterized by its yellow flowers, but Murphy says she didn't notice any blooms, so didn't think much of it when some of the leaves broke against her skin. The inflammation that she experienced in the days that followed was a result of her DNA being damaged, Blohm explained.

"When the molecule is attached to the DNA, the cells recognize that they are being damaged and they commit suicide," Blohm said. "Once the DNA gets damaged, that's a risk of cancer, so the cell kills itself to save the entire organism."

This is why Murphy experienced such painful welts on her leg. First, tiny red bumps appeared, which grew into blisters. Nearly a week after exposure to the plant, her leg had become so swollen that she rushed to the urgent care clinic at the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington.

Cases of this are not common. Blohm said he only sees around two patients a year who are suffering from this condition.

If someone suspects they have come in contact with a poison parsnip plant, they should immediately wash the exposed skin with soap and water. It takes just 30 to 60 minutes for the chemical to penetrate the skin and for the plant's oils seep in. There is little doctors can do other than prevent infection.

"There is no antidote for this," Blohm said.

There are several other plants that produce the same reaction in humans, including the giant hogweed, and even plants that people eat, like celery.

Murphy visited a burn clinic before she was able to return home. She is now expected to be back to normal within a week. "I am actually feeling a lot better," she said. " I have new skin growing back in."