Agave sap (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Agave Dermatitis: How harmful is agave sap? Are you susceptible?

You're already wary of poison oak, cactus glochids and the milky sap of euphorbias. Now add agave sap to the list. In susceptible individuals, it causes the skin condition "agave dermatitis."

Case in point: I assumed my ex (my then-husband) was exaggerating when he said his skin itched like crazy. I mean, how bad can agave sap be? Don't they make syrup and tequila out of it? You never hear about agaves being toxic! While attempting to remove an overly large century plant (Agave americana), he didn't don protective clothing. It was a hot day, and he took off his shirt. That was 40+ years ago. (Yeah, I owe him an apology.)

Chopped up agave

Chopped up agave

As recently as the fall of '18, I was unaware of the dangers of agave sap. Workers came to remove Big Blue, an Agave americana in my garden that had died after flowering. (See the video.)  They wore long-sleeves, trousers, sunglasses and hats. And they used a chain saw, which I've since learned is unwise, because it makes bits of the plant fly. Fortunately Big Blue was no longer juicy. Living agaves, though fibrous, contain much more sap.

With century plants getting larger than homeowners anticipated, throughout Southern CA, and inevitably dying after flowering, such removals are becoming commonplace.

Last year, without hiring help, I dealt with another big agave that bloomed. You know how I advise not bothering to cut off agave bloom stalks? I routinely say, "You might as well enjoy the show, the plant will die regardless." Well, find out why you should cut it off, on this site's Agave page.

Why is "agave dermatitis" unknown?

I predict it won't be for long. My ex merely itched. Greg M., who sent me an email earlier this week, said his skin felt like it was on fire. In Greg's case, the skin turned red and blistered. According to a dermatology site for MDs, agave sap can cause "CICD: Chemical Irritant Contact Dermatitis," which happens when oxalic acid crystals become embedded in the skin. The resulting "oxalism...may result in vascular damage." Another online source states that an estimated 30% of Mexico's tequila plantation workers experience agave dermatitis.

What to do?

I am not a medical practitioner. When in doubt, or if symptoms don't improve, contact your doctor or go to an urgent care clinic. Both my ex and Greg M. washed the sap off immediately, and both were fine. And just as you would do whenever considering contact with a potentially harmful substance, first do a patch test. The Mayo Clinic explains how.

Let me (and others) know

In the comments below, I'd be grateful if you'd share any experiences you've had with agave removal and sap exposure. Thanks!

Girl eating agave

Girl eating agave

P.S. Don't eat raw agave!

According to the Chongquing Times, "Zhang," 26, thought the agave leaf she was taking a bite out of was Aloe vera. She expected it to be bitter, but not that bitter. Her mouth and throat burned. Zhang is one of many Chinese vloggers who earn money from live-streaming their day-to-day activities. She cut short her video and rushed to a hospital, where they pumped her stomach. (You can't make these things up.)

 

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32 Comments

  1. Tim Wheeler on August 8, 2020 at 1:40 pm

    When my Big Blue (A. americana) spiked I knew removing it would be a major project, and damage to adjacent plants was possible no matter how careful my great succulent gardeners were. I had two reasons for cutting the inflorescence stalk before it attained its tree-top height: 1) removing the dead agave’s 20+ foot stalk would be like felling a tree embedded in a thicket of 6-foot barbed swords, and 2) I had applied a systemic treatment of imidacloprid only 3 months before the stalk appeared, and I didn’t want to risk poisoning pollinators with the myriad flowers on their way.

    So my two succulent gardeners, who I had been lucky to meet at a drought-tolerant landscaping fair a few years ago, used long-handled pruning saws to cut down the stalk at about 4 feet tall. They made quick work of it. A few months later they removed the main plant in the same manner, methodically hand-sawing off each leaf from a safe distance using the long-handled saws, then sectioning the thick remaining trunk. They maintained control of the process throughout, and they suffered no dermatitis. The pieces filled two dumpsters, which my neighbor graciously supplied.

    • Debra Lee Baldwin on August 8, 2020 at 2:41 pm

      Hi Tim — I’m a big believer in cutting off the stalk as it begins to form, rather than waiting for it to turn into a tree. I used to tell people not to bother, because they asked if that would stop the plant from dying. “You might as well enjoy the show.” But you really don’t need a 20-foot stalk! The one I had removed (in the video) landed on a prized palo verde tree and almost killed it. I’d paid $100+ for the tree and was NOT happy.

      The next time a big agave started to bloom, I said, “Oh, no you don’t!” and sawed through the stalk with a pruning knife in a matter of minutes. I fully expected the dying agave to produce a bunch of smaller bloom stalks, but it didn’t. (It was Agave franzosinii, if that matters.) Then my gardener sawed off the leaves to create a pineappled core. That sat as an eyesore/conversation piece for months until I had him roll it under some shrubbery. He finally sawed it into pieces. Being a multistep process, we didn’t need dumpsters.

      • Kevin Hackett Sr on March 25, 2021 at 9:19 pm

        Hey! Thanks for this article. I can only wish I had seen it earlier, before I did the noble deed of helping a damsel in distress. A friend of my wife said she had a Century plant that had bloomed and was dying, and now needs to be taken down. “Your husband has a landscaping company, right?” she asked. My wife said that I could take care of it before an impending storm comes. So we talked about it and I agreed to do it for her. After all, how hard could it be to cut the dead bloom off a plant. The day came and I arrived, amazed and in awe of the 30’ height and 12” girth of this dead bloom. I pull out my chainsaw, put on my gloves and safety glasses and go to town on it. Within minutes, my arms were on fire! So I go put on a long sleeve shirt and get back to it. “Lower if you can get it closer to the ground.” she said. I went lower and lower, all the while, getting showered with the sap.
        I had no idea what I had gotten myself into! I am extremely allergic to poison ivy and that seems like nothing compared to the burning and itching of this! 10 days of this and just now seeing hope of it going away. I’ve tried aloe, peroxide and colloidal silver, CBD oil, hydrocortisone, Kenolog (prescription steroidal cream), and prednisone. I will never make this mistake again!

  2. Diane Bonner on August 8, 2020 at 1:50 pm

    I had CICD just about a month ago. I was trimming the leaves off my Agave americana that were sticking out. I leaned over a cut stem and placed my inner arm just below the elbow against a cut edge accidentally. I had this happen a few years ago also, so I knew to go wash it off immediately! Unfortunately I still got the itchy red blotches which eventully blistered a little. I used Sarin lotion to help with the itches, but I still have slightly darker skin where the blisters were. Scars?

    • Debra Lee Baldwin on August 8, 2020 at 2:32 pm

      Gosh I hope there’s no scarring. Sounds a lot like a burn and its aftermath. Thanks for sharing this info, Diane!

      • John LoMonaco on April 2, 2021 at 1:38 pm

        Uggh. I just learned the hard way myself. I though fire ants had gotten on me. Darkening of the skin after this is called “post inflammatory hyperpigmentation” and usually goes away. Kojic acid and hydroquinone available from you medspa or derm can help. I’m a plastic surgeon BTW.

        • Debra Lee Baldwin on April 2, 2021 at 3:56 pm

          Thank you, Doctor LoMonaco — I really appreciate knowing this, and I have no doubt visitors to this page will too.

  3. Felicia on August 8, 2020 at 7:13 pm

    Not only does it burn my skin but it has made me sick to my stomach and the effects lasted for two days🤢

    • Debra Lee Baldwin on August 8, 2020 at 7:15 pm

      I’m sorry that happens to you, Felicia, but it’s good to know about it. Thanks for sharing.

    • Heather L. on March 4, 2021 at 6:10 am

      I had to come here to see why I had such a reaction on my skin. I was also strangely nauseous for a few hours after I encountered the plant on my skin. I would have never put the two together.

      • Debra Lee Baldwin on March 4, 2021 at 8:30 am

        Hm. First time I’ve heard of nausea. But then I’m no medical expert.

  4. Robert Ando on August 10, 2020 at 11:56 am

    Are there other succulents that can cause similar skin irritations? Which ones?

  5. Mary Jane Olenski on August 18, 2020 at 9:17 am

    Several years ago, i removed and pruned Agave plants. Not realizing the toxicity, wore a short sleeved shirt.
    I suffered and itched for 6 weeks after. Did research above the plants juice afterward. It was a very very uncomfortable 6 weeks to say the least. Now i prune with an 8 foot saw on an extension pole and wear lots of clothes and protection.

    • Debra Lee Baldwin on August 18, 2020 at 10:17 am

      Wow, Mary Jane, I admire your perseverance in keeping agaves at all! Thanks for letting us know how the sap affected you.

  6. Robert on November 2, 2020 at 2:43 pm

    Thanks for the information. I wish I would have done my homework before cutting this plant…Ouch! My arms are paying the price! Cortisone seems to be helping.

  7. SF Belliveau on November 28, 2020 at 1:14 pm

    I made the mistake of rolling up my sleeves when my husband and I were trimming the agave. I was so focused and intent on what we were accomplishing that I didn’t even stop scratching when my skin began to burn and itch! I noticed the contact-dermatitis after I showered, and the next day I went to the doctor and got a tetnus shot and cortizone creme. Its slowly going away, but the itch is awful and never again will i do yardwork with my skin exposed.

    • Cristian Betancourt on January 7, 2021 at 3:33 am

      Hey I thought it would be fun to eat a century plant but it’s been a few days and my tongue is very sensitive and hurts. Should I be worried it will I be able to out last this.

      • Debra Lee Baldwin on January 7, 2021 at 9:22 am

        Please contact a medical professional.

        • Azera on January 22, 2021 at 11:03 am

          I’m very relieved to find this site. I’m a Midwesterner and new to AZ. I didn’t realize how toxic these plants were. My Beau had Agave plants under a window replanted in the yard. If I knew this before we would have tossed them instead of wasting the money.

          4 days after I backed up into a small plant I’m sitting here in extreme pain and even crawling at times.. I was in flip flops watering and I grazed the back and underside of my Lt foot. I didn’t think much about it as it felt like a little scrape and I barely saw a white cut mark on my callous. The FOLLOWING evening I got up to go to bed and could barely put any pressure on my foot, it felt like a knife on fire was embedded in my heal. I pried opened the teeny tiny slice and saw black little dots – I pulled them out. The next morning I had a bright red line shooting from the cut to a vein and a big red rash containing a few bumps under the skin. Today the redness is finally going down (I didn’t
          get blisters) but the pain is still there. Has anyone experienced this and how long before I can walk again?

          Lmao, get this…Due to tippy toeing for days my LT calf is firing off cramps anytime I put pressure on the ball of my foot . So now it’s even harder to get around! These are little Devils and I want them out but we have to have them in the ground long enough for it finacially to make sense. Happy 2021!

          • Debra Lee Baldwin on January 22, 2021 at 11:34 am

            Oh no! You moved from the Midwest without a Southwesterner’s reflexive caution regarding agaves, cacti and the like. Those of us native to the region instinctively recognize keep-away plants. The pain sounds horrific. I strongly urge you to get medical attention (I realize it’s easy to say, harder to do). “How long before I can walk again?” HONEY, PLEASE DON’T DELAY!



  8. Mark Evans on May 9, 2021 at 1:35 pm

    Whew! I think I may be reacting to the use of an agave stalk cane that I walk on the beach with. I’ve just been itching like crazy on my arms.
    I’ve saved a bunch of the stalks to make into surfboards, of course everything is under resin when used in boards. They do make great surfboards.

    • Debra Lee Baldwin on May 12, 2021 at 10:38 am

      Hi Mark — Could be…although I’d think any allergens would be in the sap, not the dry stalk. You amaze me with your ingenuity and creativity—surfboards from agave stalks!? Makes sense—they’re very lightweight because cells that grow fast tend to stretch and aren’t dense (like, say, a slow-growing oak). Plus they’re fibrous which likely gives them tensile strength. How on earth did you ever come up with the idea?

  9. Michael D Jones on June 20, 2021 at 1:51 pm

    So I have a question for the folks here. I have been using Blue Agave syrup to sweeten my coffee in the morning. No problems for a long time but recently I broke out in a terrible rash. Has anyone had this type of reaction to consuming agave syrup?

    • Marion on July 15, 2021 at 6:02 pm

      I bought some agave syrup in a Mexican market. They called it miel de maguey. I ate some one morning on toast and by that night I couldn’t stop scratching. I am also allergic to poison Ivy and mango skin but I didn’t thinking consuming syrup would cause a reaction. I’m miserable. Should I go get a steroid shot or wait it out? I’ve been taking Benadryl and using oatmeal plasters

      • Debra Lee Baldwin on July 15, 2021 at 6:53 pm

        Hi Marion — I’m not a medical professional. Sounds like you need one. Hope you get better soon!

  10. Jay jay on June 21, 2021 at 4:30 pm

    I didn’t know either, so my method of removing the one my wife planted was with my tractor and a bush hog. (In a tee shirt). Just so you know that wasn’t a good idea at all. It is crazy that someone could be that dumb. I suppose it is a little bit funny from her prospective. I came out pretty good though just a bad rashes on both arms from the elbows to the wrist. I did have on gloves. Point being, find the humor in it and learn the lesson. It makes it a little easier to get through the itching and burning.

    • Debra Lee Baldwin on June 21, 2021 at 5:32 pm

      Hi Jay jay, I admire how you endured the battle with “the one my wife planted” with humor and resignation. May you recover quickly and completely, with only an entertaining story left. Take photos before the rashes fade.

  11. Andrea on June 30, 2021 at 3:39 pm

    Hi Debra, I recently learnt the hard way about agave sap too. I tried to dig out a large variegated agave yesterday and was not making much progress, so thought I would cut off the leaves with a hand saw. I have dug out the same plant before in another part of my garden with no issues and was wearing gloves so couldn’t understand why the skin on my arms, legs and chest felt like it was on fire. I have had a red blistered rash appear all over my arms over night. Definitely won’t make the same mistake again.

    • Debra Lee Baldwin on June 30, 2021 at 3:46 pm

      Oh, no, Andrea! I’m so sorry to hear that. See Dr. LoMonaco’s advice below, if you’re looking for something to put on it.

  12. Audrey Nunez on July 2, 2021 at 12:04 pm

    We are sitting on our bed reading this article and comment as we have our legs completely covered in small red blisters/dots perhaps. VERY itchy! But at least we are glad to know where the rash comes from as it appeared after we cut out our agave plant out from our yard! We are just trying to find a cure, we’ve tried hydrogen peroxide in small doses and it seems to help. We are trying calamine lotion next.

    • Debra Lee Baldwin on July 3, 2021 at 12:27 pm

      Hi Audrey — Yikes, it got both of you! Do you happen to know what kind of agave it was?

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