Cacti are commonly defined by clusters of spines on their stems. While this gives them a unique appearance, it raises questions regarding their potential toxicity. In this guide, I’ll explain whether cactus spines are poisonous or not and what to do if they prick your skin.
Spines are actually modified leaves or specialized structures that provide defense against predators. Their sharpness, combined with the potential for irritation, discourages animals from grazing on the plant.
Cactus thorns also minimize water loss through transpiration. Their surface area reduces air flow around the plant and this makes the cactus preserve plenty of water to survive the dry conditions in their habitats. Spines can also reflect light to reduce heat around the plant.
Are cactus spines poisonous?
Cacti are easy to grow and care for but their spines are a great concern to some gardeners. Sharp cactus spines can indeed cause physical injury to the skin but they generally don’t contain toxic or poisonous substances.
However, some cacti, like the Peruvian apple cactus and certain species of prickly pear cacti, have tiny, hair-like spines called glochids that are more irritating than regular thorns. These glochids can be very difficult to remove when they break up in the skin.
Further, individuals with sensitive skin may experience severe allergic reactions upon contact with cactus spines. Symptoms such as redness, itching, and rash may show up. Such cases may need specialized medical attention and care.
While spines themselves might not be poisonous, there are cacti species that are highly toxic if ingested. It’s best to exercise caution when dealing with them, especially around children and pets. If you’re not sure about the potential risks of your cactus consult with experts for more information.
How to get cactus spines out of skin
Getting cactus spines out of the skin has always not been easy. But with some patience and proper techniques, you can safely remove them. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to do it:
Materials you’ll need
- Fine-tipped tweezers
- Sterilized Needle
- Soap and water
- Antiseptic ointment
- Clean cloth or bandage
- Before attempting to remove the spines, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water to prevent infection.
- Carefully examine the affected area to identify the embedded spines. Use good lighting and a magnifying glass if necessary.
- Disinfect the tweezers and needle using rubbing alcohol or by briefly passing the needle through a flame until it’s red-hot. Allow the tools to cool before using them.
- Gently grasp the spine at its base with the tweezers. Try to grab the spine as close to the skin’s surface as possible.
- Slowly and steadily pull the spine out in the direction it entered the skin. Avoid pulling at an angle as that could break the spine.
- If the spines are deeply embedded or difficult to grip with tweezers, you can use the sterilized needle. Hold the needle parallel to the skin’s surface and gently slide it under the spine’s tip. Then, gently lift and pry the spine out.
- After removing the spines, clean the affected area with mild soap and water to prevent infection. Gently pat the area dry with a clean cloth.
- Apply a mild antiseptic ointment to the area to prevent infection. This will also help soothe any potential irritation.
- If the area is particularly irritated or if there’s a risk of it getting dirty, cover it with a clean bandage or cloth.
- Monitor the area for the next few days. If you notice any signs of infection, such as increased redness, swelling, or pus, seek medical attention..
Note: If you’re dealing with a large number of spines or if they are deeply embedded, it’s best to seek medical attention. Additionally, Avoid squeezing the affected area too forcefully, as this could push the spines in deeper or cause additional irritation.
Remember that prevention is always better than dealing with spines embedded in your skin. When handling dangerous cacti, wear protective gloves and clothing to minimize the risk of spines getting stuck in your skin. You may also consider growing cacti without spines.
Types of cactus spines
Cactus spines come in various shapes, sizes, and arrangements depending on the species. Here are some common types of cactus spines:
Glochids are tiny, hair-like spines that are found on some cacti. They are extremely fine and can be difficult to see, but they can cause irritation and discomfort if they come into contact with the skin. Glochids are found on bunny ear cactus, jumping cholla, and the Peruvian apple cactus..
These are smaller spines that radiate out from the center of the cactus. They are often many and can cover the entire surface of the cactus. Radial spines are also dangerous and they can be difficult to remove from the skin. You’ll find them on ladyfinger cactus or on Engelmann prickly pear.
Some cacti have spines with hooked or curved ends. This type of spines are more effective at deterring animals from getting too close. You’ll find them on Austrocactus bertinii, fishhook cactus, and Sheer’s hedgehog cactus among others.
These are straight thin or thick cactus spines that can vary in numbers depending with the plant species. They are easy to spot and remove from the skin. Straight needle-like cactus spines are also great at keeping away grazers. You’ll find them on the Saguaro cactus, San Pedro cactus and chin cactus among others.
Cactus spines are not poisonous, but they can cause physical injury and potential allergic reactions in some individuals. Their main function is to keep away predators, increase water conservation, and, in some cases, shield the plant against high temperatures.
When handling cacti with spines, take proper precautions to avoid injury. Wear protective gloves and keep dangerous plants away from vulnerable family members. If you suspect infection or having difficulty removing spines from your skin, seek medical attention.
My name is Diane M Lewik, and I am the founder of this website. I am a degree holder in plant biology from the University of California – Berkeley. Over years, I have cultivated a vast collection of succulents and I have learned a great deal about how to grow and care for these unique plants.