Milkweed – good for Monarchs, bad for eyes

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I had a scare last week, and I hope others can learn from my experience. One afternoon, my eyes suddenly started burning and tearing. I washed them with artificial tears and used a cold wet compress and they seemed okay. However, a bit later my world became extremely foggy although my husband, Harry, assured me the air was perfectly clear.

When I got to our eye doctor the next morning, the only letter I could see on the eye chart was the largest letter at the top. The diagnosis was cornea swelling in both eyes. I finally realized I had first felt the symptoms shortly after cutting some of my Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) to feed Monarch caterpillars (Danaus plexippus).

my backyard milkweeds (asclepias)
My backyard milkweeds: 1. Non-native Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica). Kentucky native milkweeds: 2. Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), 3. Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), 4. Purple Milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens), 5. Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).

Research revealed that the sap of Tropical Milkweed causes severe eye problems and others have had similar experiences: link 1 and link 2. Apparently all milkweed sap is cause for caution, but Tropical Milkweed is especially dangerous.

I like fog and the impressionistic effect it creates, as in this backyard image.

backyard fog

However, I want the fog to be in the atmosphere and not the result of poor vision. I’m extremely happy to say that my sight is now close to normal and I expect a full recovery.

This was a frightening experience and I have a new appreciation for my eyes and the ability to see. I had no idea milkweed could cause eye problems. I’m reporting my story in hopes of preventing others from having a similar experience.

Monarchs must have milkweeds to survive and I will continue to grow them. My Tropical Milkweeds have attracted more Monarchs than any of my other milkweeds this year and I will plant them again. However, I will treat them with high respect and caution.

42 thoughts on “Milkweed – good for Monarchs, bad for eyes”

  1. The tropical milkweed is so bright and beautiful. I plan to grow some, too, to add to my narrow leaved, swamp and butterfly milkweeds. Can you save me some seeds? However, because of your experience, I will be ultra careful. I am so delighted that your eyes will be back to good health soon!

    1. Yes, Steve, this is one piece of knowledge I’d have been glad to learn other than by experience. However, I’m now glad to help others be informed.

  2. That is very interesting……..I also recently had some sight issues with floaters and flashing lights. I now wonder if there is a connection?

    1. Christine, my only symptoms were tearing, burning, and very foggy vision. And those are the symptoms that I’ve seen reported in other accounts. Floaters and flashing lights sound like something different to me.

    2. Flashing lights and floaters are connected. The flashing can occur during tissue separating inside the eye – the floaters are the loose bits of tissue floating around in the ocular fluid. I had this recently and an eye doctor said its something that can happen with age, but can also be a concern if the part tearing is near the retina. You might go see an eye doctor about this.

      1. Thanks, Dave.Guess I didn’t make myself clear. I meant that floaters and flashing lights sounded different than the burning, tearing, and fogginess I had experienced.

      1. This has happened to my vision twice!!! Eye is so blurry I can’t read. Each time it happened it occurred after picking LARGE amounts of milkweed. I have seen the white sap all over my skin. Maybe I wiped it in my eye?? Never had the eye stinging pain just a hell of a lot of blur, loss of appetite, and feel blah,????. I am going to pick leaves now with gloves and long sleeves and definitely eye protection. How long did it take for your vision to clear up? I am going nuts????

      2. So sorry to hear of your problem, Susan. Glad you will be protecting yourself from now on. My vision cleared up within 48 hours after using steroid drops. Sorry for the delay in answering, just now found your comment. Hope your are all well by now. Best wishes.

  3. Goodness, Betty! Here I thought your backyard was benign, except for an occasional wasp, or maybe a bee! The worst I would have expected would be a few sneezes!

  4. Thanks for the advice. I too had this happen yesterday and never suspected the milkweed until I did some searching on the internet. Your post was one of them that helped get me to the doctor to get some help for an otherwise scary situation! Thanks

    1. Michelle, sorry to hear that you had the problem with milkweed. But glad my post was helpful. I really appreciate you letting me know. Best wishes .

  5. I’m new to butterfly gardening. I thought maybe I would use large disposable gloves over my gardening gloves when working with the milkweed plants.They’re turned inside out when taking them off. Sounds like a plan to me anyway.

    1. Wanda, I’m comfortable with being careful to wash my hands good with soap if I cut milkweed. And I’m also comfortable with just wearing disposable gloves. I’ve not tried disposable gloves over gardening gloves but expect that would work OK, too. Glad you know of the possible problem and are planning to be cautious. Good luck with your butterfly garden; hope the butterflies will appreciate your efforts.

  6. Actually, tropical milkweed is being researched to see if it’s deadly to monarchs. Because it blooms for much longer than native milkweed, it may be tricking the monarchs into staying around too long and spending too much time breeding when they need to migrate. The population is plummeting, down by almost half from a few years ago.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Patrick. I’m aware of the ongoing research regarding tropical milkweed. I prefer growing native milkweeds and have 5 different ones in the backyard. In the past two years, I’ve found that the monarchs are drawn to the tropical for laying eggs and nectar. I want to encourage monarchs and will continue to follow the research. I’m also aware the monarch population is in dire trouble. Haven’t seen a monarch all season which adds to my concern.

  7. I sure wish I had read about this before I cut some milkweed on Sunday. I had no idea! I wound up at the eye doctor’s office this morning with the same symptoms. Good to know that it will go away! Now that I know, I won’t be cutting any more of my milkweed.

    1. Amy, thanks for your comment. Sure sorry to hear of your experience. I can certainly relate. I still grow milkweed and cut it as needed but certainly more careful now about washing hands or wearing gloves. I wish there was some way to let others know and to prevent such happenings.

  8. Uh oh……I just made a bunch of vine wreaths out of milkweed yesterday and my eyes have been bothering me since last night. feels like pepper, they’re watering and things are looking foggy with a prism around lights…..looks like i’ll be going to the dr in the morning : /

    1. Oh, dear. So sorry to hear. Glad you are planning to see doctor. Hope steroid eye drops give you relief soon. Best wishes and I’d be glad to know how it goes.

  9. I am recovering from milkweed in my eye. Fortunately just one eye was affected. Like others that have experienced this very frightening experience I wasn’t sure what was causing my eye to burn, water, and seem as if I was looking through a white blurry lens. I went to bed that night realizing that something was wrong and was awakened at 4 am with intense pain and extreme light sensitivity. As soon as I could I got into my ophthalmologist that morning. By then I was wondering if it could be due to the milkweed as i was tending to about 30 caterpillars in enclosures so was cutting fresh tropical milkweed several times a day. As soon as I told the doctor this he was very aware of the extreme toxicity of milkweed juice to the human eye and in fact was aware of a patient that lost his eye sight as a result. Unlike that patient my cornea was swollen but had no ulceration or abrasions. I am being treated with steroid drops and my vision is returning. The doctor suggested wearing protective goggles and gloves ( I like the idea of disposable ones) while handling the milkweed. He also said that the fire stick succulent secretes the same toxic milky substance which I also have.

    While I have had milkweed in my yard for 10 years this is the first year that I have had monarchs and seen the caterpillars. Since so few survive on their own I decided that I had to save all the cats I could and helped them become butterflies. I am quite successful at this but had never heard about how toxic the milkweed is to eyes. I engage my grandchildren In this fun activity and provide cats and milkweed plants to their preschool teachers never realizing the precautions one should take with the milkweed. Now I will spread the word. I am just glad this happened to me and not to one of my grandchildren.
    Am glad I stumbled upon your sight while wondering if this has happened to others. Thank you

    1. Thanks, Christine. I can certainly relate and am sorry for what you went through. However, I appreciate you sharing your story. It is a scary experience.
      I’m glad you are doing what you can to help the monarchs and engaging your grandchildren as well. And yes, we need to spread the word to others whenever and however we can. Thanks for your comment.

  10. Where would I find milkweed other than the tropical variety that is most toxic? I love having the monarchs but maybe I should use other varieties especially with small children around. Any suggestions?

    Thank you

    1. Christine, I think any of the native milkweeds we can grow will be less toxic than the tropical. I have common, swamp, purple and butterfly milkweed. I understand that monarchs prefer common, however I have had some luck with each of these. Hope this helps.

  11. I had a reaction to milkweed as well. I got some in my eyes about 15 minutes ago and it started to burn. I flushed with water and washed my hands with soap. What should I do to treat this at this time?

  12. Just went to the website where I bought the milkweed and they call it mexican milkweed or tropical milkweed. Great. I got a bunch of this stuff in my eyes. I’ve been flushing repeatedly with water. It feels like pepper spray got in my eyes.

  13. Here’s a link on what to do if milkweed sap gets in your eye, it’s from a milkweed farmer.
    http://www.livemonarch.com/growinginstructions.htm

    I’ve been flushing repeatedly with clean water. I just started using warm water too. Originally I was using cool filtered water. I will use the cool filtered for the final rinse in order to flush the tap water out of my eyes.
    When You rinse make sure to rotate your eyes in a circular pattern then look up and down repeatedly. Also blink a lot. This should help remove the residue from the surface of the eye. After flushing, wipe the eyes lid carefully to remove any residue. I’ve flushed about 12 times so far and the burning still comes back, though now its slightly lessened. I will continue flushing and hopefully this will be all gone soon.

  14. I woke up a-ok this morning. A bit of irritation in my eyes but most likely from having flushed them about 15-20 times. The last few times I flushed I actually used watered down hand soap to wash out my eyes. I figured that there’s wasn’t going to be any long term issues with soap. And if it removed residual sap then it would be well worth it, besides, my eyes were already burning. But the soapy water really didn’t bother me at all. It seems to have worked. I let my eyes rest for a bit then went back for two final flushes with the filtered water. My eyes were much better before lying down for bed but lightly itchy in a few spots but no severe or even moderate burning.
    Thank you so much for this blog! People need to be warned about the hazards of working with milkweed. I probably would have woke up blind this morning if I hadn’t seen this blog. Thanks again and if anyone is having similar issues remember to repeatedly flush your eyes. I flushed mine for about 1 1/2 to 2 minutes per eye each time and It worked.

    1. Thanks, Stephen, for sharing your experience. I, too, wish more folks were aware of the toxicity of milkweed sap. I’m impressed by the way you handled your problem. The flushing makes sense to me and, had I known, I’m guessing it could also have made a big difference for me. Best wishes.

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