Wild Parsnip Burns

Wild Parsnip Burns – Causes, Picture, Symptoms, Treatment

Wild parsnip burns may seem like a harmless problem. But, it is not. You can suffer from skin problems equivalent to second-degree chemical burns that can cause severe discomfort. Several people have suffered the consequences of the harmless-looking herbage after coming in contact with it. While children get warning to keep away from fire or stoves, they must also get fair information on the hazards of coming in contact with invasive plants that can cause rashes or burn-like problems. While most of the people learn the lesson the hard way.

Gaining proper information can help people avoid such issues. The burns from wild parsnip can affect people who unwittingly stop on the side of the road and come in contact with the sap of the plant on bare skin. Most people never think more about the issue and continue with regular life. But, when they come in contact with the hot sun, the condition can become worse. Such plants that cause such burns and allergic reactions are known as phototoxic plants. Want to know more about it? Read ahead.

Know About Phototoxic Plants

Wild Parsnip Burns Before going into the burns caused by wild parsnip, you need to understand the term phototoxic plants. Phototoxicplants release chemicals as a defense mechanism to manage external threats. Such chemicals cause harm to humans. In most cases, the symptoms triggered by phototoxic plants are topical. Wild parsnip looks like parsnips. But, humans only consume parsnips, not wild parsnips. Both plants share similar DNA. So, scientists consider them as distant cousins. But, wild parsnips can cause burns. When you come in contact with the plant and then venture outside the sun can trigger fiery sting in the area that has come in contact. The defense mechanism makes the plants poisonous.

Many wild plants cause burns. But, it is not clear which ones lead to problems. Since such plants exist, it is important for people spending time outdoors to know more about it. It prevents such incidents or you can take necessary actions to reduce its complications. In the majority of cases, people never realize what caused the skin reaction. Doctors and nurses cannot recognize the burns for what it is. Therefore, learning more about the plant and the symptoms of wild parsnip burns can aid in taking preventive actions at the right time.

History Of Wild Parsnip

Wild parsnip is commonly found in the USA and Canada. But, it is not native to the countries. These plants are native to Eurasia (Europe and the Asian region). It is not clear if the non-native weed was introduced to the countries as a food crop or it accidentally came along with an immigrant (attached to a cloth). The cultured cousin of wild parsnips, the edible ones are cultivated as a crop. People around the globe have consumed it for more than five centuries. While parsnips are the good, wild parsnips come under the type of globally invasive plant. So, it has crowded out the native species of plants or herb in the countries and affects people. The eye-catching weed can cause serious harm to the skin.

History Of Wild Parsnip

Studies find the presence of wild parsnips way back to 1894. Dried specimens collected by Universities in the US suggest the weed came to the country a century ago. But, it has replaced the native plants within a short period. So, it is now a naturalized plant in several parts of the US and Canada. The weed is found scattered along the roadsides and grows in large patches. You can also find them scattered in abandoned fields, on restored parried, on pastured or in open areas. It has expanded rapidly in the last few decades. This expansion has increased the frequency of people coming in contact with the weed and suffer from wild parsnip burns.

Identify The Weed To Avoid Wild Parsnip Burns

Have you experienced skin problems after stopping your car near the road or after a romp in the field/woods? Then, wild parsnip is the culprit behind the problem. But, in most cases, people confuse it with poison oak rash, poison ivy rash or an allergic reaction due to the stinging of insect, nettles or spiders. But, coming to a wrong conclusion can affect managing the symptoms better. While the cultivated parsnip and wild parsnip have a distant relation, only the wild ones can cause harm. It has chemicals in it that cause localized burns. So, when your skin comes in contact with the fruits, stems, or green leaves, it triggers a reaction that resembles a sunburn.

Identify The Weed To Avoid Wild Parsnip Burns

The weed covers a large area, which makes it the primary target of plant removal in restoring the space or prairie. The weed is different from the wild plants as it can take over space by crowding out the native plant. The weeds have a huge ecological impact. So, it puts them on the high list of plants that can control a land. It grows up to four feet and looks like cultivated parsnip. People tend to mistake it for the edible parsnip. You can spot them with the following:


It smells and looks like cultivated parsnip. So, it has a hollow stem with vertical grooves running along the length of the stem. The stem has a yellowish-green color. It has multi-toothed leaves and produces flat-topped flowers. The flowers look like Queen Anne’s lace and have yellow petals. The flower clusters can make you identify the plants.

Common Places Of Growth

You can come across wild parsnip (also known as Pastinaca sativa L) when you harvest crops or while hiking. People living or trekking near the area that has wild parsnip need to pay attention and avoid coming in contact with the plant. You can reduce exposure by wearing clothes that cover your skin completely. So, full sleeve shirts and long pants are ideal for activities outdoors. You also need to wear full coverage shoes to prevent coming in contact with wild parsnip sap. The common regions that have wild parsnip are Southern Canada and the northern United States. So, when you travel from Vermont to California, you can find the weed. It is also common in the South to the state of Louisiana. You will not find the weed in the following states:

  • Mississippi
  • Hawaii
  • Georgia
  • Florida
  • Alabama

Cause Of Wild Parsnip Burns

Pastinaca sativa or wild parsnip is a tall plant that is easy to recognize due to its yellow flowers. The root is edible like parsnips. But, the problem occurs when the plant sap comes in contact with your skin. It results in a condition called phytophotodermatitis. It leads to developing burns that can vary in severity. In simple terms, phytophotodermatitis means when the sap can cause a reaction on your skin triggered by sunlight. Unlike allergic or immune system response, it is the skin reaction due to sensitivity to sun exposure due to the plant substance. The term itself sheds light on what happens. Didn’t catch it? The condition means inflammation (itis) of your skin (Derma) triggered by a plant (Phyto) due to coming in contact with sunlight (photo).

So, what exactly is the reason behind such a reaction? A specific substance, called furocoumarins or furanocoumarin causes the reaction. When your skin absorbs a sap containing furanocoumarin, it may not cause an immediate reaction. Only when you expose the skin to sunlight, the burns occur. It is because furanocoumarin gets energized by ultraviolet rays (present in sunlight during sunny as well as cloudy days). It leads to binding to the nuclear DNA as well as the cell membrane. The process destroys your cells and skin tissue. In most cases, you may not fee the damage when the reaction occurs. Exposure to sunlight produces visible damage.

Severity Of Wild Parsnip Burns

The chemical produced by the stems and leaves of wild parsnip is a defense mechanism. You can commonly see such mechanisms in other plants. For example, green celery plants produce the chemicals (furocoumarins) at a high level when it faces an attack from external organisms (like pink-rot fungus). When wild parsnip produces the chemical, it leads to skin problems. In mild cases of wild parsnip burns, you can see a reddening of affected skin. The skin looks sunburned. But, in severe cases, the skin starts to redden first and then develops blisters. The blisters are large and triggers concern in the minds of people. The affected area looks like it has suffered burns. You can experience the problem in the areas with sensitive skin like:

  • Neck
  • Face
  • Torso
  • Legs
  • Arms

In the majority of cases, people suffer from the reaction when they start to sweat. It is because the moisture from your sweat speeds the absorption of furanocoumarin. Moisture from perspiration speeds the absorption of the psoralens.

Plants Causing Similar Reaction Like Wild Parsnip Burns


Other plants can also cause phytophotodermatitis. Some common plants that you eat can trigger similar reactions. Wild parsnip is a close relative of giant hogweed angelica, carrot, and parsley. These plants can cause a similar skin reaction in people with sensitive skin. Some other plants that cause skin reactions in people with sensitive skin are:

  • Fig
  • Fennel
  • Mustard
  • Lime
  • Wild Parsley
  • Wild dill

So, always maintain caution when using such vegetables or while coming in contact with them. People with sensitive skin can experience more problems compared to others.

Symptoms Of Wild Parsnip Burns

People stopping by the roadside or walking through the woods can come in contact with the invasive plants. You may not see the changes immediately. The changes in the skin that comes in contact with the sap of such plants appear only after twenty-four hours and after exposure to sunlight. The symptoms that indicate wild parsnip burns are:

  • Intense burning or stinging feeling on the affected skin surface
  • The rash appears on the skin that comes in contact with the sap
  • Over time, the rash gets worse with severe blistering
  • Irregular patches on the skin with a random cluster of small spots, fingerprint-size spots or linear streaks

Some people can see the skin getting better after three to four days. It resembles similar to sunburn blisters. So, the burned skin tends to die and shed itself. Your symptoms improve over time. It results in the rash appearing lighter or darker based on the skin tone of the affected person. But, discoloration due to the burns and sensitivity to sunlight can remain in the affected areas for some time (up to two years).

Diagnosis Of Wild Parsnip Burns

In most cases, handling the rash at home can help manage the symptoms. So, you just have to follow some home remedies. But, some people can experience a severe rash due to the condition. In such cases, see a doctor immediately. It is also advised to see a doctor if you are not certain what caused the rash. A medical professional can determine the underlying cause of the skin problem.

Physical Assessment

Usually, the doctor diagnoses phytophotodermatitis caused by wild parsnips by performing a thorough physical examination and determining medical history. You need to answer the following question posed by the doctor:

  • Your recent activities, including traveling or hiking
  • Exposure to any plants during the trip
  • Sun exposure
  • Current symptoms
  • Previous signs

After getting all the answers, the doctor will examine the affected skin. It is to conclusively diagnose it as wild parsnip burns.

Other Tests

If your doctor is not sure about the condition or wants to rule out other conditions causing a similar rash, then you need to undergo other tests. Further tests can determine the issue conclusively:

Patch Test

Patch Test

A patch test is usually recommended when the doctor suspects an allergic reaction causes your rash. The diagnostic tool identifies specific agents causing the breakouts on your skin. You feel itching and develop a rash due to coming in contact with a certain substance that makes your immune system to react.

Skin Biopsy

Skin Biopsy

In some cases, rashes can indicate something serious. So, the doctor sends a sample of the affected skin to the lab for testing. The lab technician can evaluate the cells and check for the presence of malignancy. The skin biopsy can also detect other inflammatory skin conditions like eczema or drug-related rash.

These tests can help your doctor diagnose the suspicious-looking rash conclusively. After ruling out other skin conditions, your doctor suggests treatment options.

Treating Wild Parsnip Burns

Mild cases of wild parsnip burns need no specific medical care. The phytophotodermatitis cases of less severity are easy to manage at home. But, if the condition is severe or persists for a long time, then you need immediate medical attention. People suffering from the problem need to take some steps at home to reduce the severity. Here are the steps to manage the burns due to invasive plants:

Restrict The Severity Of Burns

If you suspect coming in contact with the sap of wild parsnip, then you need to follow the instruction suggested below to avoid complications:

  • Cover the affected area of your skin with a wet and cool cloth. It reduces the pain and discomfort associated with the problem. It is to shield the affected area from sunlight to prevent a chemical reaction.
  • Wash the skin surface that has come in contact with wild parsnip sap with mild soap and water. While washing can remove the sap from the skin, your skin remains sensitive for at least eight hours. So, stay away from sunlight or any source of UV rays for the period to avoid any issues.
  • You need to keep the blisters from rupturing as long as possible. So, take care of your movements and try to avoid tight-fitting clothes.
  • Apply antibiotic cream as a precautionary measure to reduce the risk of developing an infection.
  • Try to keep the affected area clean to prevent any complications like infection and keep the area clean.
  • Avoid going out. It is to reduce the risk of further burning as sun exposure can worsen the condition. When the affected area is exposed to UV radiation, it causes further discoloration. It is because the chemicals in the wild parsnip sap cause a reaction when it gets sunlight.

Use Ice Packs

The above-mentioned methods can restrict the severity of burns causes by wild parsnip. Why you develop burns and blisters? You need to keep an ice pack over the affected area. It reduces pain and discomfort caused due to the condition.

Apply OTC Cream

To soothe the inflammation caused by the burns, you can try an over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream. It offers pain relief.

Pain Relief Medication

The burns can cause severe pain. So, you can take acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain relief.

Medical Treatment

The home treatments can only manage mild cases of wild parsnip burns. If you suffer from severe burns, then you need to see a doctor. It is also important to seek medical help when you experience the following signs that indicate an infection:

  • High Fever (38 degree Celsius/100.4F or higher)
  • Increasing welling
  • Severe redness in the affected area
  • Pus oozing out from the affected skin surface

The doctors can recommend a more potent prescription based or systemic treatment. You need higher strength topical steroids to relieve the discomfort caused due to the burns.

Preventing Wild Parsnip Burns

With a little caution, you can prevent the burns caused by the wild parsnip plants. You need to take into account the pointers suggested below:

  • Identifying the plants that cause skin allergies is essential to prevent such issues. You need to understand your skin’s reaction to such irritants and allergens. It helps you take steps to avoid coming in contact with them.
  • Washing your hands properly with soap and water after spending time outdoors, cooking or coming in contact with plants can reduce the severity of skin irritation. Washing helps remove the plant chemicals from your skin.
  • If you are planning to spend time outdoors or in the wooded area, then wear appropriate clothes to cover your skin. It prevents the direct contact of skin with the plants that cause a reaction.
  • If you are pulling parsnip or other plants, wear gloves as a precautionary measure. You must also wear a long-sleeved shirt and pants to avoid direct contact.


Wild parsnip burns can result in pain and make you feel uncomfortable. You can take steps to prevent coming in contact with them. But, if it fails, you need to avoid coming in contact with UV rays. It can cause the furanocoumarin to react and trigger skin problems. The inflammatory skin disorder can lead to dark spots on your skin. With proper care and management, you can reduce the severity of the issue.

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