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Backpacker Magazine – June 2001

Belly Ache Or Poison?

What to do if the berries you munched weren't safe after all.

by: Buck Tilton

Nothing jazzes up a bland breakfast like fresh fruit, and Phil, being a knowledgeable outdoorsperson, thought the shiny red berries he plucked and added to his oatmeal were safe. A short time later, while doubled over with intense stomach pain, he realizes he's the victim of a case of mistaken berry identity.

Has Phil poisoned himself? If Phil were your hiking partner, what should you do?

Step 1: Immediately induce vomiting, unless the person is unconscious or incoherent, in which case vomiting could cause him to choke. According to the most recent Wilderness Medical Society Practice Guidelines for Wilderness Emergency Care (The Globe Pequot Press, 800-243-0495;; $13.95), he must upchuck within 30 minutes of ingesting the plant, before it settles into his digestive system. The new guidelines also recommend the old finger-down-the-throat method because it works so quickly. The American Academy of Clinical Toxicology recently declared that syrup of ipecac, a longtime first-aid standard for inducing vomiting, can interfere with the effectiveness of charcoal, which brings us to:

Step 2: Whip up a charcoal shake. Standard medicine in hospitals, activated charcoal soaks up poisons so they aren't absorbed by the body. Improvise your own by using the blackened, partially burnt portions of campfire logs. Make a slurry by combining the black char with water, then make him drink it.

Step 3: After vomiting, he must drink lots of water for a few hours. The solution to pollution, in large part, is dilution.

Step 4: Get him to a hospital, and take along a sample of the plant, if possible.

Better Safe Than Sorry
Poisonous plants most often eaten by mistake include: mushrooms, water hemlock, castor bean, monkshood, poison hemlock, pokeweed, rhododendron, jimsonweed, skunk cabbage, and pyracantha. Correctly identifying a plant is the best way to avoid getting poisoned. For tips on smart foraging, see Moveable Feast, October 2000.

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