It can be difficult to know if a sting from a plant is dangerous or not. This article explains the best first aid treatment depending on the plant involved.
It’s important to be aware that stings from plants can cause a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) in some people. Learn more about first aid treatment for severe allergic reactions in the ‘anaphylaxis’ section below.
The Gympie-Gympie is one of four species of stinging trees in Australia. The three closely related species, also of the family Urticaceae, are the giant stinging tree (Dendrocnide excelsa), the shiny leaf stinging tree (Dendrocnide photinophylla) and the Atherton Tabelland stinger (Dendrocnide cordata).
The Gympie-Gympie is the most similar to the Atherton Tableland stinger, with the two other species growing over 20 metres, but is said to have the worst sting of all, and possibly the most painful sting of any plant in Australia.
The sting is delivered through tiny silicon hairs that cover the leaves and the fruit of the plant. These silicon hairs penetrate your skin, and then break off. They're so tiny, that often the skin will close over the hairs. So sometimes, once you've been stung, you can't remove the stinging hairs.
It has been described as 'being stung by wasps'. This then leads to whitening and swelling at the sting site, which can lead onto perspiring.
If you get stung follow this advice:
- the most important thing is that you do not rub the area, as this can break off the hairs and make them very difficult to remove
- remove visible hairs with tweezers
- apply and remove adhesive tape or hair-removal wax strip to the area to remove the finer hairs
- do not scratch or rub the area, this may cause the hairs to penetrate deeper into the skin.
Nettle plants are around one meter high and have tiny hairs on the leaves and stem which, if you touch them, will give a nasty sting and a rash. Generally nettle stings will not cause lasting problems unless you have an allergy to the nettle sting.
The rash may be painful for a few hours after you are stung. Medical attention is not normally required, unless there is an extensive nettle sting (such as you fall into lots of nettles and are stung all over your body).
Occasionally some people have a severe allergic reaction to being stung by a plant.
In cases of severe allergic reaction, the whole body can react within minutes to the sting which can lead to anaphylactic shock. Anaphylactic shock is very serious and can be fatal.
Symptoms of anaphylactic shock may include:
- swelling of the mouth, throat or tongue
- difficulty swallowing
- difficulty breathing or shortness of breath or wheezing
- difficulty talking
- a rash that may appear anywhere on the body
- itching – usually around your eyes, ears, lips, throat or roof of the mouth
- flushing (feeling hot and red)
- stomach cramps, feeling or being sick
- feeling weak
- collapsing or falling unconscious.
Call triple zero (000) for an ambulance. If the person has a 'personal action plan' to manage a known severe allergy, they may need assistance to follow their plan. This may include administering adrenaline to the person via an autoinjector (such as an Epipen®) if one is available.
The Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy recommends that for a severe allergic reaction adrenaline is the initial treatment. For further information, visit the Choosing Wisely Australia website.
The St John Ambulance Australia first aid fact sheet for bites and stings can be found on their website. For more information on anaphylaxis, including setting up a personal action plan, go to www.allergy.org.au.
People with diagnosed allergies should avoid all trigger agents and confirmed allergens and have a readily accessible anaphylaxis action plan and medical alert device It is wise to ensure your friends and family know how to follow your anaphylaxis action plan too in case you need help. See your doctor or a pharmacist.
Not sure what to do next?
If you are still concerned about your plant sting, why not use healthdirect’s online Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.
The Symptom Checker guides you to the next appropriate healthcare steps, whether it’s self care, talking to a health professional, going to a hospital or calling triple zero (000).
Last reviewed: July 2015