Warning: Article contains graphic images of chemical burns.
Charlotte Murphy doesn’t want anyone else to experience the pain and fear she went through this month.
The 21-year-old from Essex, Vermont, had to be rushed for medical treatment after she developed the equivalent of second-degree burns from the sap of a plant growing along a roadside — wild parsnip.
She shared photos of the large, angry blisters that took over her left leg on Facebook, hoping to spread awareness about the plant and the reactions it can cause. Her post has been shared over 75,000 times.
“MOST importantly please tell EVERYONE you know (animals can also get burned if they come in contact) read more about its characteristics online and educate others,” she wrote on July 14. “Please be on the lookout the rest of the summer and get help immediately if you come in contact with [its] oil! I apologize if the following photos of my burn are too intense, but they are the best way to show people what wild parsnip does.”
Murphy, an art major at Elon University in North Carolina, told Boston.com the whole ordeal began on July 2 when she and her boss, who is an environmental artist, stopped at a rest area on their way to install a sculpture in Bennington, Vermont.
“There was mowed grass and picnic tables, and I was walking along the brush and kind of lost my footing,” she said. “I would say I didn’t completely fall over, but my leg definitely broke some leaves, and they really brushed up against that left inner part of my leg.”
At the time, she said she didn’t think much of it, though she noticed the leaves of the plant broke onto her skin when she stumbled.
The Essex resident said she already knew about wild parsnip and its dangers, but she hadn’t seen any of the tell-tale yellow flowers that look like Queen Anne’s Lace.
“My boss even that day was like, ‘Do you know what it looks like? Just be careful,’” she recounted. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, I know what it looks like.’ My mom had informed me about it. But I didn’t know what the leaves looked like, and the leaves can start before the bloom.”
She continued to go about her day, spending it outside in the sun installing the sculpture in Bennington. She didn’t get a chance to shower until the end of the day.
Murphy said she didn’t start noticing a reaction on her leg until July 4, when tiny bumps or blisters that looked like the start of poison ivy showed up.
They didn’t bother her — they weren’t itchy and they didn’t hurt. It occurred to her that she must have come into contact with something, but, since she works outside so often, she didn’t connect the bumps to the leaves that broke when she fell days earlier.
“I was like, ‘Oh, maybe I hit something, but it will probably go away,’” Murphy said. “So I didn’t do anything about it [and] kept working out in the sun that whole week.”
Then on July 9, her leg became swollen, red, and itchy. Murphy was in Boston working on a sculpture installation outside and found she couldn’t stop itching her skin.
The next day she woke up to find a huge, yellow blister on her leg.
Murphy said she decided to keep soldiering through her day. But by the end of it, she had six blisters.
“They all grew exponentially throughout the day to the point that they were taught and tight on my skin that it just hurt so much to walk and my leg was so swollen I just had to sit down the entire day,” Murphy recounted.
When she got home to Vermont, she and her parents rushed to urgent care. She found she had sustained injuries comparable to second-degree burns.
“Basically, apparently the longer you’re out in the sun with that oil on your skin, the worse it gets,” she said. “Because it pretty much exposes your skin to the power of the sun. I don’t know why it didn’t show up right away.”
Murphy said when she saw the yellow blister, she realized it must have been wild parsnip that she’d encountered. She’d gotten reactions from it a few years ago, while running with her cross country team — some tiny blisters on her hands.
“Everybody got little bits of it,” she said. “That was my previous experience, and it went away. It didn’t bother me that much. I didn’t know it could get this bad.”
It’s a biennial plant, meaning for the first year it grows its fern-like leaves and, in the second year, it produces a stalk with yellow flowers that look like Queen Anne’s Lace during mid-summer. Once the plant flowers, it dies.
The sap of the plant is what is dangerous, according to Jennifer Forman Orth, an environmental biologist with the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources.
“It’s not an allergic reaction,” she said. “It’s a chemical reaction. It makes the skin really sensitive to UV rays.”
The redness and burn blisters, known as phytophotodermatitis, can occur up to 48 hours after coming into contact, according to the park service.
Forman Orth described the plant as a “weed of roadsides and waste places.” Sometimes it can be found in agricultural areas or crop lands, but she said it is generally controlled by mowing.
It is not widespread in Massachusetts, though it is more common in the western part of the state, she said.
“You’d have to be cutting the plant or mowing the plant to get the sap on you and then your skin would have to be exposed to the sunlight in order to have the sort of sunburn-like blisters that will form,” she said. “It’s not like you could be exposed just by standing next to the plant or something. You really have to damage the plant in some way that gets the plant on your skin.”
Anyone who thinks they’ve come into contact with wild parsnip should seek medical attention and cover the skin to prevent it being exposed to sunlight until they can wash the area, Forman Orth said.
Ben Truman, the public health communication officer for the Vermont Department of Public Health, told Boston.com in an email that wild parsnip is present in 10 of the Green Mountain State’s 14 counties.
“Exposure to the plant presents a health concern,” he said. “The burns caused by getting the plant’s sap on your skin followed by exposure to sunlight are like second-degree burns and can cause painful rashes and raised blisters. Everyone should learn to recognize the plant so that they can avoid contact with it, as well as know what to do if they get sap on their skin.”
Murphy said Thursday she’s no longer in pain from the burns she sustained. She’s been visiting a burn clinic for treatment and expects to be back to her normal routine in another week or so.
But with a new layer of skin formed following the burns, she’ll have to continue monitoring the exposure to her leg.
The 21-year-old said she just hopes her experience and story will help others avoid and be more aware of wild parsnip.
“I don’t want to create a fear of being outside, but, just through this process of realizing that a lot of people didn’t know what it was, especially in the summer when everybody is outside, people just need to be made aware,” she said. “ And hopefully it [will] spark a conversation about how we deal with this invasive species.”