Monday, November 14, 2011

Medical Mondays: Foxglove: Pretty. Helpful. Deadly.

I've had a fascination with herbal medicine since before I was in medical school. Isn't it interesting that a pretty flower in your garden could also be on the shelf of your local pharmacy?

Case in point--Digitalis purpurea, or Foxglove. Also known as:
  • Bloody Fingers
  • Dead Man's Bells
  • Fairy Folk's Fingers
  • Lamb's Tongue Leaves
  • Lady's Gloves
Foxglove is a beautiful, ornamental plant with pointed, oval leaves that are slightly hairy. The leaves, flowers and seeds all contain the compounds digoxin and digitoxin, which affect the heart.

It was first reported in medical literature by William Withering in 1785 as a treatment for irregular, fast heart rates (most likely atrial fibrillation) and dropsy, which was an English term for leg swelling that often accompanied congestive heart failure. Historically, it may have also been used to treat epilepsy, though this has since been proven to be ineffective.

Today, it's still used to treat both atrial fibrillation and congestive heart failure under the names digoxin, digitoxin, Crystodigin, and Lanoxin. It has not been proven to reduce mortality in these illnesses, and is currently being used less and less frequently.

Digoxin/digitoxin also has a very narrow therapeutic index. Too little of the drug and it doesn't help; too much causes serious toxicity. The window between these two thresholds is very tiny.

Toxicity can cause:
  • death
  • loss of appetite
  • nausea, vomiting and diarrhea
  • jaundiced "yellow" vision
  • blurry vision
  • dangerous arrythmias, including slowed heart rate
Here are some interesting factoids about "dig" (pronounced "dij,"as we call it in the medical world.)
  • Vincent Van Gogh may have been treated with digoxin. Some theorize that his Yellow Period was due to digitalis toxicity, and the blurry stars of "Starry Night" might be evidence of toxicity as well. (photo credits)
  • In 2003, Charles Cullen murdered 40 patients by administering fatal doses of digoxin while he cared for them as a nurse.
  • The antidote to dig toxicity is called Digibind or DigiFab, which is an antibody that binds to digoxin.
  • Reports of poisoning have occurred after children drank the water from a vase being used to display foxglove.
  • The plant is toxic to cattle, dogs and cats.
  • Poisoning has occurred in people brewing tea from foxglove leaves after they mistook them for innocuous comfrey leaves. Both plants have similar appearing furry leaves.
  • Foxglove was one of the many herbs used in the prehistoric Clan of the Cave Bear books by Jean Auel.
Neat huh? Next time you see Foxglove in a garden (or need it in a novel) remember this post!

If you've got a fictional medical question, let me know! Post below or email me at
All I ask is that you become a follower and post a link on your blog when I post your answer. This is for fictional scenarios, only! Please check out the boring but necessary disclaimer on my sidebar --->
Also, don't forget to stop by Laura Diamond's Mental Health Mondays and Sarah Fine's The Strangest Situation for great psychiatric and psychological viewpoints on all things literary. :)

64 comments:

Fiona L said...

Interesting, I find plants that could be used as poison fascinating.

I have a medical question. I'm already a follower ;)

My ficitonal scenario has to do with space. Or generally, when you take oxygen out of a room. What will happen to the person? How long will it take for them to realise they can't breathe? What symptoms come first and how long before they kaputz...

And out of curosity, why oxygen? What's so special about oxygen that we need? Why not any other types...

Thanks so much if you can answer it. it would help with my novel. I've tried researching it but i'm not sure since they talk about vacuum and high altitudes.

Your blog is gold, keep up the awesome work!

Laura Pauling said...

Okay, totally scary! Esp. when too much is toxic and too little ineffective!

Ciara said...

That is fascinating. I'm shocked that the nurse gave a fatal dose to so many people in 2003. It seems we should know better by that point.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Wow, you found out a lot about it. I love its different names. But weird what it can do and that kids drank from the vase they were in. That's kind of scary.

Sarah said...

So interesting--and frightening! I agree--the kid dying after drinking vase water is pretty scary. *eyes vase full of flowers*

Maria Zannini said...

Fascinating. I love posts like these.

I study the toxicity of plants before I put them in the ground. The last thing I need is a sick dog.

B.E. Sanderson said...

Cool. I'd heard of the dig family of meds but didn't know they were foxglove. Or that foxglove was so deadly. Thanks for these awesome posts, Lydia. =o)

Clarissa Draper said...

What an interesting tidbit about Van Gogh. I didn't know that. I love when some research can explain art.

Anne Gallagher said...

Wow, I love foxglove and have always wanted it in my garden. I guess not. Thanks for the info. It's definitely a keeper for one of my novels.

LTM said...

very cool. I'm always interested in learning more about poisonous plants. They're great, sneaky ways to kill characters... LOL! :D <3

Old Kitty said...

The first I realisee Foxgloves were toxic to kitties was when I bought some at my garden centre and actually read the label! LOL!! Oh but they are so pretty and the insects love them!

Take care
x

Suze said...

'Some theorize that his Yellow Period was due to digitalis toxicity, and the blurry stars of "Starry Night" might be evidence of toxicity as well.'

That is absolutely fascinating, Lydia. I would love to see you write more 'herbal' posts.

Giles Hash said...

Very cool! I'll remember this when I have a garden some day. I'll keep the pets away from deadly plants :)

L.G.Smith said...

Ooh, I was doing some research this weekend about another poisonous plant, Laburnum. *rubs hands together* Makes a perfect little plot device for my novel. Muwahahaha.

Ashley Elston said...

Love these Medical Monday posts. It always makes me wonder how I can work in this information to my WIP.

Slamdunk said...

I was not aware of the use and dangers of foxglove. It is a good thing that I lack a green thumb so it is one less thing to worry about.

Jennifer Hillier said...

Every time I come here, I learn something new. Love these posts.

Thanks again for the stew recipe! :) I'll let you know how it turns out.

BECKY said...

I love your Medical Mondays, Lydia! And well, I just love your blog! This post just proves one thing to me: Do not try to eat any vegetation that you don't find in your farmer's market or grocery aisle! :o

Amanda Borenstadt said...

I knew it was toxic, but I never knew all those cool details! Wow, what you can learn before you finish your first cup of coffee! :)

Bossy Betty said...

Fascinating. I just love the different, colorful names.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Beyond neat! That was a fascinating read. I love the lore behind flowers and herbs, and the VanGogh note was an eye-opener.

Connie Keller said...

When I was researching poisons in the Middle Ages, I was shocked to discover how many poisons had been identified and cataloged. (I think foxglove was among them.)

Little Ms. Fun said...

That Van Goh fact is sooo interesting! I just told my coworker about it and she's now reading through yoru article.

You always have great posts!

Talli Roland said...

Wow, how fascinating. So that's why Van Gogh was so trippy!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Mental note - don't nibble on foxglove. Got it.

Deb Salisbury said...

Oops! I love the flowers, and I've been wanting to plant them in my garden. I think I'll give it a pass.

julie fedderson said...

I love planteceuticals! Very awesome post, Lydia.

Matthew MacNish said...

You know so much amazing stuff.

Carol Kilgore said...

I knew the things about digitalis but not about Vincent Van Gogh - one of my favorite artists. Wow.

Joshua said...

A friend in college talked abut making chili for her stepfather and spicing it with foxglove. I guess she had an issue with him.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I tried growing those once. Didn't turn out so well. Maybe it was for the best.

Laila Knight said...

I always loved the idea of herbal medicine...probably why as a child I fancied myself a witch in a past life. The plants were created for a purpose. It'd be great to harness their power. :)

Krispy said...

I like its alternate names! Also, yeah, way scary that it can go from helpful to deadly so easily. Ah nature...

Roland D. Yeomans said...

I became aware of Foxglove as a young child when my mother took Digitalis for her heart. They later changed her to other heart medications, but the memory of me in the library looking up Foxglove is still with me.

Boy, you should never eat brownies given to you by a Native American shaman whom you angered! A lot of foxglove mixed in ... brrrr. Roland

Shelley Munro said...

Interesting post, Lydia. I need to search your archives for other herbal type posts because this stuff is exactly what I need for my current historical WIP. Thank you! You've started my mind working...

AdamAlexMommy said...

Something really beautiful can be very dangerous at the same time. The colors are really stunning... L)

Jas

Karen Lange said...

Wow, this is good to know. I'll never look at Foxglove the same way again!

LD Masterson said...

Fascinating. And definitely something I don't want in my garden.

Carrie Butler said...

I love how your posts always stir possibilities in my mind, Lydia! :) That was really interesting, especially about Van Gogh.

Meredith said...

Next time I see foxglove in a garden, I'm avoiding it! That's fascinating, though--what a crazy Van Gogh theory!

Linda Gray said...

Ah, foxglove. A favorite in murder mysteries for ages. I did not know there was an antidote, though! That is excellent info., thanks! (And I agree, those flowers are so pretty. There's something compelling about that, considering how sinister their use can be.)

Cold As Heaven said...

I've seen these flowers all over the place, but didn't they can be used for something. Great van Gogh pictures >:)

Cold As Heaven

Munk said...

I wish I had something on which to blame my Yellow Period.

...aka my Yellow Bellied, or Chicken Period.

Sweet Virginia Breeze said...

I'll mark foxglove off the list of flowers I want in my garden. Very interesting facts.

Sherrie Petersen said...

I love this post! I had no idea this flower could be so deadly.

Alleged Author said...

Anything with the nickname "bloody fingers" kind of freaks me out! So happy to hear they found a way to make a deadly plant medicinal.

Cheree said...

Fantastic post. I love poisonous plants. Bloody Fingers is a great name :D

Olga said...

Fascinating post. Especially the examples from art history. Plants in general have a many qualities which are yet to be known.

Angela Brown said...

I find it astounding and intriguing that something so beautiful possesses the ability to be so deadly.

LisaAnn said...

Yikes! Beautiful and scary... A wonderful Medical Monday, as always!

catherinemjohnson.wordpress.com said...

Same as Slamdunk for me :)

Samantha Vérant said...

Wow, this was truly interesting – especially the bits about Van Gogh. I do prefer the name foxglove to bloody fingers. And now I have Brittney Spears song 'Toxic' in my head. Yikes!

jbchicoine said...

Foxglove is one of my favorite flowers--too bad it's only a bi-annual...As far as writing goes, I suppose a wife serving her husband some 'comfrey' tea could be an inciting incident! ;)

Southpaw said...

Fascinating. I love herbal stuff and herb lore.

Julie Dao said...

I love foxglove! I think it's so pretty and I had no idea it was so toxic. So many plants are lovely killers! I actually didn't know poinsettia was (reportedly) toxic to animals until I bought one and my roommate asked me to keep it in my room because she had a cat.

Sarah said...

Fun:) I love the things in medicine that are kind of accidents in nature...

Chris Phillips said...

Clan of the Cavebear reference FTW!

Jennifer Shirk said...

It is interesting! When I was working as a pharmacist I used to always tell patients to becareful when dealing with any OTC herbal meds too. People automatically think because it's "natural" it can't hurt you.

Susan Fields said...

Very intriguing! It is very pretty, but not really something I'd like to keep around, especially since it's toxic to cats and dogs. And that's fascinating about Van Gogh.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Interesting post. I am always fascinated with plants, and its not because I have a green thumb or something, its because I just love this aspect of nature. Fox Glove is something I have not heard much about.

Medeia Sharif said...

Awesome facts, Lydia. I don't think I've seen this plant in my area. Still, good to know.

Carol Riggs said...

They are SO pretty! but haha, like Alex said, "Don't nibble on foxglove." LOL Interesting about Van Gogh, for sure. :)

Tasha Seegmiller said...

Okay, I just found this blog - amazing! I love this post and blog. New follower :)

gastrosurgery. said...

Thank you for the info. It sounds pretty user friendly. I guess I’ll pick one up for fun. thank u...



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