Go FIGure: What you don't know about figs can hurt you

A fig tree in Northeast Portland.
Inside this Northeast Portland fig tree - like others throughout the world - lies a milky substance that can cause skin rashes and swelling for some.

PORTLAND, Ore. – In Portland, 73-year-old Olga VanHorn spent one of the past string of warm days in the dirt, pulling out suckers from her 30-year-old fig tree. She then bundled them up in her arms to take to the yard debris can. 

About an hour later, her arms were covered in a poison-ivy-like rash.

“My arms from the top of my hands to my elbows looked like someone had thrown acid on me,” said VanHorn, who knows she is highly sensitive to chemicals. “It was burning.”

Two weeks later, remnants of the rash remain. Her arms still look burned, but are pink rather than scarlet red. VanHorn said she has been treating it with rubbing alcohol and cold water dips. "I just put my hand in the sink and ran the water up above it," she said.

VanHorn also said doctors advised that calamine lotion could be used. However, her chemical sensitives kept her from being able to even use calamine lotion to soothe the burning itch.

Indeed, the Oregon Poison Center database lists the milky sap from fig trees as one of the many unexpected fruits and vegetables that can be noxious. The fig’s parent plant, the Ficus, falls into the category of plants that causes dermatitis - inflammation of the skin. Poison center officials say the symptoms can include rashes, redness, blistering and swelling.

"It is a sensitivity reaction, and very few people are allergic to it," said a source at the Poison Center. "But anyone, with repeated exposure, could become allergic over time." Dermatitis also can get worse with exposure to light.

Note that the Poison database reports that reactions can be lessened or eliminated if removed promptly. Anecdotally, smoke from burning fig wood also may irritate exposed skin.

Other foods with unexpected reactions
In another odd fruit allergy story, a source at the Poison Center tells KATU of something called "mango mouth": an allergic reaction some people have to the skin of the mango fruit.

"Those sensitized to poison ivy tend to also have a sensitivity to mango," said the Poison Center source.

Granted too much of nearly any food from the garden can cause adverse reactions, including a condition where the skin glows orange from eating too many carrots.(It's reversible.)

Other unexpected, mildly toxic foods include: 

  • The green parts of potatoes
  • Green carrots
  • All of the tomato plant except the fruit and seeds
  • Apricot seeds
  • Seeds and limbs of avocados.

To be sure, "all of these [allergic reactions] are exceedingly rare," said Zane Harowitz, medical director of the Oregon Poison Center at OHSU. "The mangoes are perhaps more prone to allergic reactions than the other items, but anyone could potentially be allergic to any growing plant or vegetable."

Back to the fig
Note that any Ficus - from the weeping fig to the Benjamin tree to the small-leaved rubber plants - and not just the fig tree has the potentially noxious milky sap in their leaves and stems. Additionally, VanHorn's chemical allergies kept her from being able to use calamine lotion and may have made her more susceptible to an allergic reaction to the sap.

For VanHorn, that experience was one that shook her - especially when dealing with something as innocent and edible as figs.

“I thought I was dying,” she said. "It was terrifying. If it happens to other people, I’d like to keep that from happening. People may not realize that they came in contact with the fig tree.”

Recommended to-do list with figs and other mildly toxic foods:

1) Wear gloves when trimming the limbs and when removing the fruit directly from the plant.

2) Skin or trim the top or green spots from potentially toxic fruit.

3) Immediately discard or plant unripened portions and toxic seeds.

3) Otherwise, eat and enjoy.

Source: Oregon Poison Center